"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, October 18, 2010

BP's $499,999,864.72

Well, that's a rough approximation, assuming they paid for the pizza. There was a lot of pizza, but most of the half billion dollars they have earmarked for "Gulf state universities investigating topics relevant to the safety of deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico" is still unaccounted for.

(Seriously, they have only committed about 10% as yet.)

As I mentioned, last week I was privileged, by virtue of association with the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas, to be invited to a presentation by two leading BP professionals. On the right you see my lousy iPhone capture of the event, proof I was there.

The fellow on the left is Dr. David Tsao, technical specialist for the Remediation Engineering & Technology group in BP's Remediation Management, serving as the Strike Team leader evaluating biological and chemical agents for the Deepwater Horizon incident and the fellow on the right is Mike Mason, VP for Base Management, who was the lead of the team capping the well. Mason is a mechanical engineer with an MBA from Purdue.

The event was billed as "BP is very interested in having a robust technical dialogue with UT JSG
professionals and students on the Gulf of Mexico spill." but mostly it was a presentation. The questions that were asked, on the whole, were not unfriendly or BP-skeptical in tone.

Both Mason and Tsao seemed very pleased with their own role in the events. Of course there is sample bias here; those are the people BP would be sending around to the universities.


Mike Mason spoke first. (Oddly, the fellow who had the unbelievably or almost unbelievably Hollywoodesque story of his escape from the Macondo platform is also called Mike Mason. This awkwardness wasn't mentioned, but came up when I started looking for a web presence for the Mike Mason, BP VP. No luck except for an amazingly terse Linked-In page. Bother.)

Between the accident on April 20 and the final capping of the well September 19 (exactly 5 months) he was in charge of a 300 person team involved in capping the well. He expressed regret for the loss of life and damage in a way that seemed just sincere enough to avoid being perfunctory. He wasn't there to grovel, he was there to brag.

He was coordinating professionals from three national labs (LANL, LLNL and Sandia) and several competitors, and NOAA, as well as 300 direct reports.

There was no great scoop here; anyone following the news from the Gulf closely last summer wouldn't have met with great astonishment. I've gotten yet another authoritative explanation of deep water drilling; the outline is always the same but the details sufficiently different that I conclude there are a LOT of details. This isn't like a drill press or even like flying a plane. Nonroutine decisions appear many times in the course of an operation, and the teams are highly skilled. In particular, knowing which density of drilling mud to use when is a tremendously nontrivial task; either too dense or too light can destroy the well at any stage. Erring on the side of too light can also damage or destroy the platform, although this is theoretically so rare as to be negligible. But everyone knows what they say about theory and practice.

(Of course, highly skilled, outdoorsy, smart, rich, redneck = about the most arrogant people on the planet. Mason didn't get into the accident in any detail, unsurprisingly, but if you listened carefully in the one slide the absolute monumental hubris, idiocy and incompetence that needed to conspire for a disaster of this magnitude was mumbled about.)

Mason talked about the ROVs (the remote control subs). Somebody claimed that manned units would have been better, but Mason said that if there were comparable manned units to go below 1200 ft, he didn;t know about them and he didn;t have them. He spoke of the difficulty of operating them, keeping their control lines straightened out being an endless nuisance among many. He spoke of three ROV units for 18 hours changing a rubber belt, for a net cost of about $600,000. (The ROV units cost $250 K per day each.)

Now that's a fan belt.

He spoke of the riser not being designed to fail or be cut. He seemed to indicate that the diamond saw had made a clean cut across the riser, which wasn't what I recall. Nobody called him on it.

In questions, Mason insisted that the total oil spill was "hopelessly underconstrained". It wasn't his bailiwick but he wasn't buying the 4.6 million barrels or the 50K barrels/hour spilled numbers that seem to be the final refereed score. The total oil captured or burned was slightly in excess of a million barrels. [Update: so somewhere between 20% and 100%. No avoiding that a lot of oil was spilled; this was a major league disaster in either case.]

Mason's most interesting point was about the balance of psychological stress. There really were no weekends for anybody until the well was capped, and the professionals he was leading were doing mostly intellectual work. Knowing when you or others around you are too tired to make a good contribution is a nontrivial managerial task.

Mason was the head of the capping team. There were three other major divisions to the disaster relief. If I got them right (I am not sure about this) they were capture, disposal, recovery and cap. Mason, an engineer, did no explicit bragging. But with all the blame floating around, he got quite a dollop of glory.


If Mason was an engineer from central casting, Tsao was the scientist from the same studio. Tall, thin, Asian, long straight black hair and black clothing, he was a striking figure, but he had a modest, midwestern demeanor. Among his first words were "I'm a northern boy", said almost apologetically. Tsao has a doctorate from Purdue in chemical engineering, with a strong biochemical focus. I didn't get the sense that he was in charge of logistics, but he did seem to be influential in the decisions about which remediation strategies to use where. Perhaps he was the guy who ended up with the f*cking booming school 101 memo.

He showed, as expected, the obligatory bird-washing pictures and avoided, as expected, the dead wildlife in a pool of petrol porn. But I don't think anyone in the room really had much truck with birdwashing. He was much more concerned with bulk ecosystem damage, and focused (as I expected) on the linear shoreline. Her said that the complex marsh geometry means that in practice there is something like 5000 miles of Louisiana shoreline. About a fifth of it was damaged to varying degrees. Sandy beaches were considered less problematic; a certain amount of mechanical scrubbing seemed adequate. He didn't say this but it's not as if Gulf beaches have never seen tarballs before.)

Perhaps the most hostile question from the audience was about the chemical agent used to break up the oil into smaller globules to hasten its bulk decay into CO2 and water. Tsao acknowledged that the substance was "toxic" in the sense that just about anything is toxic. Even water has an LD50, as people sometimes say. Toxicity is not a yes/no question but a question of degree, with the important question being the lethality and persistence of the substance. Tsao claimed that the active ingredient is a major component of Windex, and is biodegradable. You wouldn't want to drink a pint of the stuff, but you wouldn't panic about a couple of squirts getting in your swimming pool.

I found Tsao's most interesting riff by far to be about the reverse help-line tehy set up to accept suggestions from far and wide. I copied the numbers down, verbatim I think.

BP received 123,351 ideas and suggestions from the general public. Of these 86 were tested in the field and 35 actually deployed. Yet this was considered a great success, since it essentially doubled the repretoire of shoreline management strategies.

People who underestimate science and engineering and overestimate their own level of understanding should take a good look at those numbers. of 123,351 ideas, 86 were deemed interesting enough to test, and 35 of those sufficiently successful to deploy, nearly doubling the original reportory. Read that again, I'll wait. The success rate of ideas in the real world from outside the field was 35/123,351 or 0.028 % or one in 3524. And most of those were probably from people with related experience.

BP has been throwing a lot of money at the Gulf ever since April 20. This raises a lot of questions, as great quantities of money are wont to do. They've been in a difficult spot, because there really is no excuse for their massive spectacular blunder. Not only was this one of the worst accidents in history, it was one of the stupidest and most unnecessary.

Because it required so many things to go wrong, in some ways the events are reassuring. It should not be too hard to put regulations and safeguards in place to avoid that level of idiocy.

There can be no excuse for the behavior of the BP team directly responsible for the drilling operation at Macondo. But the remediation effort, despite all the understandable hostility and anger, seems to have been successful and about as well managed as something on this scale could be.

And yes, I'm still eating gulf shrimp.


Last week the responses to my attending this event seemed to indicate some interest in discussing the role of corporations in the society we have and their role in the sustainable society we need to move toward. I hinted at my position which is a bit nonstandard: I am both deeply impressed and deeply distressed at how the corporate world works. I think that BP demonstrated the most serious possible ethical lapses but followed up with impressive technical skill and in a nuanced fashion that was about as good as could be achieved under the circumstances.

I do have a project I could pitch to them. It's a fairly obvious bit of phsyical oceanography, but I have my own spin, and given the disaster in oceanography at FSU, there's no obvious candidate institution in the gulf states. Should I go for it? Would y'all hate me for it if I got it? Am I already tainted by the pizza?

Have I been greenwashed? What should BP have done differently? In particular, should they NOT fund research into oceanography?


James Annan said...


SHINKAI 6500 is a manned submersible that can dive up to the depth of 6,500m, outperforming other manned research vehicle all over the world today. In 1990, SHINKAI 6500 began the mission to study topography and geology of the seafloor as well as organisms in the deep sea at Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean in addition to Japan Sea., and exceeded the 1000th dive in 2007.

That is, this device is 20 years old, and hardly secret. It might not be perfectly designed for the task at hand but surely could have been if anyone had wanted it to be (in advance).

skanky said...


There's one or two aspects of this picture that me be considered relevant, here.

Michael Tobis said...

I thought a bit about that one, too.

It's too deep for a diver. Given that, the question is whether the affordances of the device are best handled by someone inside the device or someone at the other end of a wire tether. The wire tether adds a complication when several vehicles are used in combination, but that's compensated by not having to worry about life support and mortality.

So, what would be gained by sending the operator down with the vehicle?

Rich Puchalsky said...

Have you been greenwashed? No, but...

As the years go on I'm more and more skeptical about the idea that anything can really be communicated over the Internet, in the sense of actually changing someone's assumptions about anything. So I doubt that what I'm going to write will do any good. I remember, more than a decade ago, reading what you wrote on Usenet (which was technically correct, interesting, etc.) and deciding that you'd inevitably get radicalized in one way or another by events and that nothing I had to say would really be meaningful to you until then.

Well, you're somewhat more radicalized now, though you aren't really as far along as I think is going to happen. Should you watch out for being greenwashed? Not at the pizza stage. But if you take money from BP to the extent that you depend on it, your values will become theirs. It's inevitable. This is why a scientist can work for BP and tell people that the dispersant is just an ingredient of Windex and probably feel hurt if anyone questioned his integrity or told him that he was working in PR.

Does this mean that BP, or corporations in general, are uniquely evil? No, of course not. But the scientists who work for them really can't be trusted, and it's not really their fault.

There is a whole infrastructure of funding for research by government, and protection of research in academia, and even employment of people by environmental groups, that works to produce, if not neutrality, at least an alignment of people's interests with the systems that they study. I don't think that you've ever really seen the point of it, given the persistence of your rhetoric about "both sides" having "activists" who do things. Well, there's a point to it.

Aaron said...

Does Tsao use Corexit as a cleaning and sanitizing agent around his house and office? Why not?

Was Tsao's group responsible for the stories that asserted "chemical oxygen demand" (COD) was "biological oxygen demand" (BOD)?

For a long time I worked for an engineering firm that had clients such as API, BP, and Exxon. We took their money and did good science. Sometimes they would pay us for a design, and then go with a cheaper design by somebody else. Then, they would come back to us because our designs always worked.

If you are the best, you do not have to compromise - anything.

Michael Tobis said...

Aaron: I'll invite him to answer if I can find his email.

I thought he was politically adept in avoiding saying things in a way that would reflect badly on BP.

On the other hand I have no suspicion that he was lying, and no suspicion that he had anything but the best of intentions in maximally protecting and restoring the environment within the limit of the ample resources his group has at hand.

Rich: The questions asked do affect the answers received. But I think the question asked of the remediation team was specifically, how best to remediate the environment, subject to the constraint that we have to look as if we are doing so.

(The latter part accounts for the weird symbolic bird-washing tradition that traces back to the Santa Barabara incident, I believe. It's really silly; by definition only damaged specimens of common species will be recovered.)

If I take money from BP to prove what a lousy job NCAR did at projecting and overstating the path of the oil (which offended me more than I have said around here) and work out better ways to do that, I will be reflecting only the ideal that science should be done right, not badly. In this case my interests already align with BP's, as the exagerrated predictions were used in the anti-BP propaganda and scaremongering.

The trouble is that I am not sure we should be getting the petroleum at all. So being able to get better predictions than the (to me) transparently wrong predictions of S Peacock released in the early days of the crisis would be adding to the capabilities of an industry that in the best of possible worlds would not exist.

On the other hand, we are a long way from that world. And another thing that offends me is the idea that polluting American waters is more evil than polluting other people's waters or lands. In fact, the industry will be much safer in future because the accident impacted America. If it had impacted Nigeria, do you think we would have heard as much about it?

So the ethics of the situation genuinely puzzles me. Others would see this as funding plausible -> go; I see ethical arguments on both sides of this question.

Speaking of "both sides" I really do consciously try to avoid dividing the world into two competing camps as a matter of personal philosophy. I think that shortcut has been enormously damaging in the past.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"In this case my interests already align with BP's,"

No, really they don't. Imagine a cherry-picker hired to pick cherries. "Pick them from that side of the fence," he's told. So he does, and they hire him again. When people ask why all the cherries are vanishing from the public side of the fence, he tells people that his interests and his bosses' interests are perfectly aligned: he's a cherry-picker and he's doing what he believes in. And oh by the way this whole rhetoric of there being "two sides" to the fence is really damaging. There is just one area that's sort
of mostly devoid of cherries now and it blends into another one that statistically has more cherries for some unknown reason.

Michael Tobis said...

I see your point, and it's interesting.

But it doesn't really apply. Peacock already, on the public dime, made a big news splash making the spill out to be even worse than it was, causing actual financial damage to businesses on the east coast of Florida due to cancelled oceanside vacations and increased outrage directed at BP. And this based on science that should have been obviously suspect to anyone with any knowledge of fluid dynamics.

Basically it looked as if the surface oil was treated as a passive tracer in the top layer of an OGCM, which is at least wrong (it was obviously decaying quickly) and maybe doubly wrong (surface processes unimportant for OGCMs at least need to be taken into account).

This was bad science with an anti-corporate spin using tax dollars. Admittedly only a single data point, but it certainly seems to be one strike against your model.

I think it's just cheesy bandwagon-jumping. The press was kicking BP (quite deservedly, make no mistake) so somebody decided to get some press delivering another kick, deserved or otherwise.

David B. Benson said...

MT --- First of all, peak crude oil arrives in 2014 CE. Nothing you do will change that nor the subsequent desire for evermore deep drilling offshore.

Second, by all means produce a better predictive model if you can. Similar events will surely happen again in the future and having a good model is obviously a fine idea.

James Annan said...

I think mt's point is that a modest quantity of common sense would have been a better predictive model than what some scientists did in this particular case. I share his...disappointment.

King of the Road said...

@ David Benson:

Can you provide a date and time?

David B. Benson said...

King of the Road --- The date of 2014 comes from the September issue of \Scientific American\.

The method used is a update, or modernization, of M. King Hubert's successful prediction of peak oil production for the USA.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"But it doesn't really apply. Peacock already, on the public dime, made a big news splash [...]"

Doubt if you're reading this any more, but...

No, it doesn't invalidate my model at all. I'm trying to get you to see two things, basically. The second of them is that individual decisions on what to work on can be absolutely fine in themselves but absolutely wrong as part of a pattern of what is worked on.

If corporations pay people to pursue all of the cases in which people on the public dime did something wrong, and no one pays people to pursue all of the cases in which corporations do something wrong, what do you think the end state is going to be? Even though each individual mistake-pursuer can (for the sake of argument) point with complete justice to their own individual integrity, competence etc., the end state is that corporations rape the planet.

Criticizing Peacock is, once again, perfectly fine in itself. Find someone to fund you to do it who will also, once they've established a relationship with you, possibly pay you to work on something on the other side.

Michael Tobis said...

Rich I was with you 'til the last paragraph.

"Work on something on the other side" doesn't parse very well for me. A proper simulation technique of spilled oil trajectories is not on anybody's side; an improper one may be.

My point was that the original work was indeed arguably improper. But if so it was an improper publicly funded attack on corporate interests (and incidentally, on others including mom and pop motels in southeast Florida) not an arguably improper defense of corporate interests. So it is already on "the other side" as you propose it.

If one were to be compulsive about balancing the thing to do would be to get an incorrect result that suits BP's profit margins. That is, in this case the evidence is exactly against the phenomenon you posit.

Paul said...

Watch next week's "Frontline" on PBS. They may have some interesting things to say about BP and the spill.

Paul Middents

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the detailed illuminating report.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Michael, I don't think that you're really understanding what I write at all.

Look. "A proper simulation technique of spilled oil trajectories is not on anybody's side; an improper one may be." is just wrong. False. You live within a political system, whether you like it or not. Properly discovered things are often on sides, and often people know this beforehand. For instance, let's say that there's an area that developers want to develop. Properly discovering that there's an endangered species there (assuming that there is one) is against the developer's interests. Properly discovering that there isn't one there (assuming that there isn't) goes against slow-growth people's interests. You can't pretend that this doesn't happen just because you want no part of it.

Let's say that you want to work on things properly; e.g. not lie. I fully support that. But then you have to be careful what work trajectory you put yourself into, because that determines what projects you take on.

The point is not to balance one incident that disfavors BP with another that favors it. And it's not to balance one incident that you work on that disfavors corporations with another one that favors them. The point is to look at what's actually going on in larger society. In larger society, corporations are systematically out-propagandizing their opponents in the public sphere.

There's really no way that you can work on issues of how individual actions become questionable when lots of people do them and not see this, except in the usual sense that people can't see what their paycheck requires them to not see. It's a bad sign that just prospectively thinking about this money is accompanied by this kind of blindness.

Michael Tobis said...

Ah, well on this I have no disagreement; indeed this is exactly the occasion for my query.

Nevertheless, in addition to its intrinsic interest (it is, actually, a problem with properties that appeal to me) we do have the fact that it responds to work that improperly acted against the corporate interest.

So the question raises an ethical hierarchy; is it better to act improperly against the overly powerful side or properly in its behalf. The ethical ranking of the other quadrants is clear.

But the fact remains that the original research was in the anti-corporate quadrant (and in my opinion, transparently badly done).

There is some disagreement as to which political tendency is excessively powerful within science. The case at issue supports the idea of science as an instrument biased in favor of socialism as opposed to biased in favor of corporate capitalism. I am sure you don't like this suggestion. I am not comfortable with it myself. But it clearly happens sometimes in some places, and apparently it can happen even in America today.

Given that there is some symmetry here, it seems that ordinarily one should be on the side of truth.

In fact, while it would have been difficult to do a good job with the simulation, it would have been trivial to do a better job. This wouldn't have gotten much press. ("Scientist predicts no significant amount of Gulf spill will get into Gulf Stream" ho hum)

Horrified as I am by what corporations are blindly doing to us in aggregate, I do not think the business will be repaired by injuring them randomly. If we do not actually use truth, we are not helping.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I still don't seem to be communicating well. I support always being truthful in anything you work on, whether it favors corporations or disfavors them. The point then is to be careful about what you work on.

If you work for a corporation, you will only get assigned to corporation-favoring projects. And yes, people are smart enough to generally figure out what these are in advance. Only if you retain control of which projects that you take on will you be able to preserve neutrality, much less overall societal balance, in project choice.

And getting back to my first point, you may think that you can take on one project for a corporation and that will be it. And sure, it's possible. But the more likely it is that this is significant money for you, the more likely it is that you will rationalize continuing down that path. That's not a criticism of you specifically, it's just an observation about people in general.

Michael Tobis said...

Sure. No objection.

Now, should BP be encouraged, discouraged, allowed, disallowed to fund research at public institutions?

Should those institutions, similarly be encouraged, discouraged, allowed, disallowed to accept those funds?

I admit that answers to these questions are actually unclear to me.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I don't really have much on the abstract question of whether they should be allowed or not. It's kind of pointless, because they are allowed, and I see no mechanism by which they could be disallowed.

As for encouraged vs discouraged ... the way that I assume that this will happen is something like:

1. BP pledges half a billion to research at public institutions in response to spill. This is done purely for reasons of PR, obviously -- otherwise it would have been done already. There's no "encouragement" other than that they think it will be good PR.

2. I predict that BP will never send out most of that money. Perhaps they'll do 10% or 20%. Again, this is not because anyone will "discourage" them, but because once the story fades, there is no need to buy PR about it.

Both of these phases depend on the setup of our media, which are dysfunctional. No one who is heard will say that BP is either buying PR in stage 1, or will track them and hold them to their pledge in stage 2. See e.g. Bush administration promises about aid after Katrina.

I see no mechanism by which the media can be reformed. Therefore this just collapses to the first case again.