Friday, April 30, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill!

We've heard the chant "Drill, Baby, Drill!" Well, off the coast of LousianaSpill, Baby, Spill!

But, when you drill, sometimes you get a spill. That's just the way it is. As an engineer, I know we live in an imperfect world. Spills happen. Engineers may design drill rigs to avoid spills, but don’t fool yourself, nothing made by human hands is perfect. So, if the policy is "drill, baby, drill," at some point that will lead to "spill, baby, spill!"

The best thing we can do, as engineers, is design in contingencies. We know that the fuel tanks that at your local gas stations leak from time to time. Most don't leak. But leaks happen. So we now have double wall tanks. If the first wall breaches, there is a second wall to catch the leak.

We do that with fuel lines two: a pipe within a pipe. If the first pipe leaks, the second one catches it.

We need to find out more of why this spill happened and if the contingency provisions failed. This is a big one, with so much pressure, it can't just be capped. And it is very deep, too. It may take months to drill a relief shaft so the first one can be capped. When the pressure isn't too bad, one can put a valve (in the open position) on the end of a leaking pipe while the pipe is still under pressure. Once the valve is firmly in place, it can be closed slowly until eventually the leak is sealed. But, if the pressure is too great, or you can’t get to the pipe, you have to try something else.

In the mean time, the damage is occurring. There will be harm to wildlife and to the wetlands along the coast. And economic impacts, particularly to the fishing and tourist industries. The fishing and shrimping boats are all at their docks. If it takes months to stop the leak and clean-up the spill, they will be out of work for months.

This one spill doesn’t mean that we should take a knee-jerk policy adjustment and end all off-shore drilling. But it does mean we should have our eyes open on the risks that come with any energy policy that includes off-shore drilling.

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