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Posted at 08:07 AM ET, 04/20/2011

Deepwater Horizon, plus one

A year ago today, four executives from BP and Transocean flew to the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico to commend the crew on its safety record and talk about the importance of avoiding hand injuries and stumbling hazards. On that day, the focus was on personal safety: hard hats, steel-toed boots, gloves, goggles. As my colleague Steve Mufson has pointed out, this emphasis on personal safety was not coupled with a rigorous examination of the risks of the entire system.

And so the 126 people on that rig wore their protective gear, as they were supposed to. The executives listened to the safety briefing when they arrived at the rig, as they were supposed to. Each was given a card assigning him to a lifeboat in the exceedingly unlikely event of an emergency evacuation.

Several of the executives were on the simulator in the bridge the evening of April 20, seeing what it would be like to try to navigate the Deepwater Horizon through high seas and 70-mph tropical storm winds. And that’s when the blowout happened.

A year ago I didn’t know what a blowout preventer is. Or a blind shear ram. Or a hot stab, or a junk shot, or a top kill.

Eleven families were going about their lives that day with no inkling of the disaster that was about to strike. A top Houston Chronicle reporter, Lindsay Wise, has a story today about those families on this grim anniversary.

Here’s the story I did with Mufson about the debate over the future of deepwater drilling. Botom line: Congress hasn’t enacted any of the recommendations of the Oil Spill Commission; industry wants to return to the deep but so far they’re only geared up to fight the last war, not necessarily the next one (disasters don’t follow the storyboard).

Yesterday I made the media rounds, trying to retail some lessons from Deepwater Horizon and the Macondo well blowout. Here’s the transcript of the Diane Rehm Show; here’s a spot I did for the News Hour (PBS). I’ve got a book website but have been somewhat derailed by breaking disasters and other obligations; so that’s a work in progress.

The ultimate lesson is one I address in the book, near the end, and I hope I’m not violating my own copyright but reprinting some paragraphs here:

[W]e’re inhabitants of a planet that is becoming increasingly engineered. The engineers are brilliant and creative, and mostof us have little appreciation for what they do, so deftly is their handiwork woven into our daily lives. Nor do we adequately appreciate the labor of those who keep this highly engineered world running. They get no glory. Some of them spend much of their lives offshore, out of sight, unknown to the rest of society until one day maybe a tragedy puts their name in the paper. As in: Jason Anderson, Aaron Dale Burkeen, Donald Clark, Stephen Curtis, Gordon Jones, Roy Wyatt Kemp, Karl Kleppinger Jr., Blair Manuel, Dewey Revette, Shane Roshto, and Adam Weise.

We need to remember that sometimes bad things happen to complex systems, that gremlins roam the earth. Things go wrong: Count on it.

The engineered planet challenges all of us to be a little smarter, to pay

more attention. We need to learn the jargon, understand the risks.

There will be more black plumes. There will be other fires on the horizon.

Low-probability, high-consequence events are made all the more devastating, potentially, by the scale and sophistication of modern technology. The human race is gambling that an engineered planet can be made sustainable, nuclear weapons controlled and managed, crops and livestock genetically modified, machines deftly crafted on the nanometer scale, the electrical grid revamped to be more highly networked and “smart,” and perhaps the entire planet itself “geoengineered” to combat climate change. As we go down this technological path, we will count on complex systems to work correctly. We will assume that someone smart is in charge, looking over our world, protecting us. We will imagine a world full of blowout preventers that will actually prevent blowouts.

Here’s the thing: Usually the technological magic works. Usually

nothing terrible happens.

Usually.

By  |  08:07 AM ET, 04/20/2011

 
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