Monday, 21 June 2010

Obama's Rhetoric Reaps an Inevitable Harvest.

Rather as Medawar expected, the Obama-led lynching of "British" Petroleum and its chief executive has not been lost on any of the very many countries around the world where all-American companies have caused far worse disasters and walked away, protected from repercussions by the US State Department.

Thing is, in 1984, when the Bhopal disaster killed thousands of people directly and shortened the lives of tens of thousands more, India was not a superpower able to kick the US President's "ass" in the way he has made such a point of doing himself in the past several weeks. India is much, much more powerful now than it was then, and Mr Obama, and especially Mr Weiner, have, through their own high blown rhetoric, made it politically impossible for the Indian government not to press for the extradition of Union Carbide executives to face criminal trial.

Perhaps American politicians will finally understand why British politicians made the Piper Alpha inquiry a rhetoric (and pomposity) free zone. Or perhaps not, in which case the next few months will be excruciating.

Update: No, American politicians and Obama in particular, do not get it, and India gets more furious. Medawar would advise Obama to avoid Brittany, too. And Nigeria, and Genoa.

Sheffield Forgemasters and Other Solutions

The new Coalition Government of the UK (the "Lib Cons") has recently made several fairly controversial spending cuts, mostly focusing on items which the outgoing government decided to spend in the last few weeks of its existence. Some of these were indeed pure pork barrel or "scorched earth" items, but one or two were booby traps, in that something bad would genuinely happen if they were cut, as an incoming government (and Labour was expecting it to be pure Tory) could be predicted to do.

One of these was a loan of £8oM (not strictly spending, therefore) part of an overall £140M finance package to enable a company called Sheffield Forgemasters to build a 15,000 ton press capable of forging very large steel castings. (One cannot simply cast steel as if it were bronze: to have strength, the casting has to be heated up and walloped a bit.) Currently, the only firm that can cast and forge single steel components of the size required for the new generation of nuclear power stations, is Japanese. The previous government judged it to be in the public interest (and not just in the UK public's interest) for there to be more than one place in the world that could make this kind of thing. The present government doesn't think they can afford it, and are openly suspicious of all the arguments in favour of the development. (The new energy secretary is openly suspicious of anything to do with nuclear power, too.)

However, even if the government cannot play a part in funding the press, it's still in the public interest for it to be built, and if it is built and Forgemasters then have the capacity to make steel parts bigger than have ever been seen before, Medawar has no doubt that applications outside the nuclear power industry will swiftly emerge. For example; one of the green alternatives to nuclear power stations, are offshore wind turbines with a turbine diameter approaching, or even exceeding, five hundred feet.

This will require several very large steel components: the turbine blades may be carbon and glassfibre composites, but they will need to meet in a hub of quite spectacular strength and integrity, and there will need to be a corresponding bearing, too. The whole turbine mounting and generator housing will need to track the wind, which means there will have to be a mounting ring many yards wide. All of this will be on top of a steel tower, which can be fabricated by shipbuilding methods without a 15,000 ton press, but where this tower is fixed to the concrete-filled foundations at the base, there will be another high-integrity component.

Perhaps all of these things can be fabricated out of several smaller forgings, but there might well be strength added and weight saved if they can be done in one forging each.

A similar trend applies to wave and tidal power schemes: to become efficient enough to compete with nuclear power, some of them will need the benefits of scale, our existing manufacturing capacity will struggle, globally, and thereby our solutions will be shaped by the limits of what we can fabricate, and not by what we need to do to achieve our goals. Sometimes this forces people to invent better solutions, but it can equally block access to simple and straighforward solutions.

There's no real question that the steel industry has reached the stage where at least one company in the UK has to have tools of this scale, in order for them to move forward and offer designers new possibilities. The question is how, if the government won't help finance it, do we do this thing. And not just this thing, but any equivalent tooling job for the future?

In the 19th century, where a loan of taxpayer's money wouldn't even have been thought of as a solution, all manner of things were tried. Including public subscriptions to bond issues, and even just to charitable funds which had the building of a bridge or whatever as the charitable goal. The public was offered the chance to ride across the rigging being used to construct the Clifton Suspension Bridge, in return for a donation towards the ongoing building costs, and so on.

In the 20th century, public interest corporations were created for big projects, such as the building of Garden Cities at Letchworth and Welwyn. (Some purely commercial town-building efforts were total failures, others, like Jaywick Sands, got built, but without proper planning.) The most famous public interest corporation of this period, the BBC, is still with us. Although, the BBC was made possible by parliament granting it the right to extract a licence fee from any householder who received wireless or, later, television, signals. This makes the BBC a lot more independent of government than a typical state broadcaster, although it is not fully commercial. (And commercial broadcasters must either charge a subscription, or be subject to censorship by advertisers.)

More recent still, are umbrella organisations set up as companies limited by guarantee, which allow several competing companies to pool resources in their and the customer's interest, without forming a cartel that would be both unwelcome and illegal. Two noteworthy examples of this are: The London Internet Exchange and BUPA.

In effect, the former is a self-funding entity to make sure that the internet develops and keeps happening in the UK, the latter performs more or less the same task for private medicine. Paying no dividends, both have no alternative but to put any operating surplus back into the growth and development of the "business". Whoever put up the money to start this, did not get it back directly. But the members of the LINX benefit from the huge growth in internet activity which it has enabled, and members (and a lot of other parties, too) have benefited from the growth in medical practice that BUPA has facilitated. BUPA was originally set up to do the things which the state-run National health Service didn't offer. To a large degree, that's still the mission.

Although ideologically opposed by those who think that the NHS should be the only provider of health care in the country, it's hard to see how the NHS could possibly have survived the past sixty years without BUPA, because it would have had to do too many things and public finances would never have stood the strain. Although BUPA is seen as "private" medicine, it is still a public-interest company at heart and it certainly is not as rapacious as many American commercial healthcare providers.

Sheffield Forgemasters, meanwhile, is not the first British manufacturing company to face difficulties funding the new tooling needed to get from the products of the past, to the products of the future. BSA and other motorbike manufacturers were in the same bind in the nineteen seventies, because to compete with the new Japanese motorbikes, they needed, not just new models, but entirely new ways of making them. Other marques had the same trouble, the British Motorcycle Industry didn't so much "nearly die" as die. Yes, it exists again and a state-of the-art factory makes new Triumph bikes, but this is a rebirth, it was not a survival. Yes, every company involved should have anticipated change and put money aside, but there are two problems with this:

Money put aside within a profit-making company always gets used for something else, or it gets eyed up by the taxman.

Anticipating change is a full time occupation and the people running the company in the here and now, simply cannot also anticipate changes of this scale until they happen. The signs can be hard to spot, and those behind the changes may be keeping them secret for commercial advantage, as the Japanese were.

If there were a non-profit making company limited by guarantee, set up to ensure that British manufacturing industry gets the major tooling investment, research and development that it needs, then capital put into it won't come back as dividends, but it won't be taken by the taxman, either, as the investment vehicle is not for profit. And it can have "anticipating change" as an objective named in its articles and as the full time job of its directors. Charging companies a licence fee for using tooling that it funds, or helps with research and development, would in time give it an income stream to make it independent of direct funding inputs from its members. It might be called "British Industrial Tool Exchange" (BITX) or something similar.

Give people the tools, and they can do the job.
We face all kinds of environmental problems in the near future requiring engineering solutions, one immediate example is bound to be an oil well Blowout Preventer that is two orders of magnitude more robust and reliable than the existing types, which differ only in scale and ancillary equipment from those of the early 20th century. A Blowout Preventer is the way it is, largely to make all the components possible, preferably easy, to make (by the standards of East Texas around 1911.) Paradoxically, to make it simpler and more reliable, we will need ways of making components in one piece that are currently several, and perhaps in sophisticated cam shapes where currently they are simple pistons and cylinders. The Blowout Preventers of the future will be simpler in operation, but more complex in manufacture.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

This Was The Week

This was the week when President Obama, having got tougher with "British" Petroleum every day for a month, got so tough that America now has no goal except getting tough with BP.

This was the week when Exxon, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and Mobile all claimed that they never spilled any oil and even if they did, they had really brilliant plans for cleaning it up that were so much better than BPs. A weary congressional committee chairman, possibly the only sane man left in American politics, pointed out that they had, in fact, practically identical contingency plans to BP. (Probably all commissioned from the same consultancy firm, if the truth were known.)

This was the week when an organised campaign to "seize BP's Assets" really took off, with millions signing up to it without asking if it was in fact organised by Transocean's publicists...

This was the week when blaming people for an accident took precedence over fixing the problem.

This was the week when an American president demanded, with menaces, a $20bn downpayment on a crisis that has cost $1.6bn so far and will probably actually cost, at most, $8bn.

This was the week when some Americans seriously started to believe that BP had managed to crack the Earth's crust open and that the entire Gulf Coast would be evacuated in consequence.

This was the week when America started a "war on oil slicks", using all the language of a Blitz which no American has known, to describe an accident that's being patiently fixed, when America's politicians allow, bit by bit, by the very people they are competing with each other to castigate.

This was the week when the managers of China's Sovereign Wealth Funds, calm and sober men more powerful than everyone on Capitol Hill put together, decided that Greece was actually a safer place to invest in than the United States, a conclusion that the Qatari Sovereign Wealth Fund reached last month.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Transocean, the Pointed Finger and Why The Blowout Preventer Probably Failed

President Obama's jihad against BP, really got going when BP started to ask questions about how all four stages of a four-stage blowout preventer could fail. This was when they were accused of "pointing the finger" and have had fingers, not to mention the presidential boot, in their face every moment since then.

The blowout preventer was supplied and installed by Transocean, but made by a separate American engineering company. Probably, elsewhere in the world Transocean would have a Briitsh, Dutch or Malayasian company make this item to a common specification. It weighs 140 tons and no-one wants to ship one too far if a competent manufacturer is close at hand. The competence of the manufacturer in this and other cases seems not to be at issue.

However, despite having about half of the drilling contracts in the Gulf of Mexico over the last few years, Transocean account for around three quarters of the accidents, and more than one of those has involved the partial failure of a blowout preventer. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is remarkable because the failure was complete, and it led to a cascade of problems on the rig itself, which is what killed the (11) human beings. Better rig design could have avoided these deaths, if not the oil spill, and Medawar is still somewhat concerned that the oil spill is seen as worse than the cost in human life.

Another fact, with multiple pertinencies for Deepwater Horizon, is that in 2006, Transocean was served with an Improvement Notice by the UK's Health and Safety Executive. This link is to the HSE's page, explaining very clearly, exactly what an improvement notice is.

The HSE Inspector can only issue an improvement notice if:
The company is in some way breaking health and safety law (in a way that would allow it to be brought to a criminal trial if an accident had already happened.)
The Inspector can describe what it is the company must do, within a given time, to comply with the law and avoid prosecution.
It's a way of getting companies (and, incidentally, government departments and police authorities) to avoid accidents, before someone is hurt, rather than punishing them afterwards. Failure to comply with an improvement notice will lead to prosecution.

The notice in question related to Transocean's failure to test blowout preventers. Transocean appears to have complied with the notice within the time set by the Inspector and thus complied with UK law. The accident rate in the Gulf of Mexico suggests that this improvement in its performance was entirely local to UK jurisdiction. IE: the company now knew that its normal practice wasn't good enough for the UK, but took no steps to learn from the notice and make their American operation safer too.

Medawar will get onto the technical implications in a moment, but there's an important pertinency of jurisdiction here: The relevant American authorities have been complaining, but not loudly, because Mr Obama wants BP to bear all the blame, that because Transocean is registered in Switzerland and its ships and rigs are registered as maritime vessels in the Marshal Islands, they had no power to inspect them. Actually, they had no duty to inspect them annually, but the US Coastguard as the same powers as the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency, to inspect any vessel, as the occasion demands, that is passing through their waters or visiting their ports, for basic seaworthiness. They have the same power to arrest any vessel, too, until defects are made good.

However, the transfer of responsibility for oil-rig inspections from the UK's Department of Energy, to the HSE, as recommended by the Cullen Inquiry into the Piper Alpha Disaster, gives the HSE complete jurisdiction over any rig or vessel carrying out work in UK waters, or on a licence issued by a UK authority. If American authorities had paid attention to the Piper Alpha disaster, other than to assure themselves that no American faced criminal proceedings over the 167 dead, as per the State Department's standard operating procedure, then they would have had nearly a quarter of a century's grace in which to ensure that some Federal or State authority had the same jurisdiction over the offshore drilling industry in American waters as the HSE does in UK waters. That they didn't, may owe something to "industry lobbying" but there is no evidence that BP was a party to such lobbying. BP are not on record as having opposed any regulatory effort to improve safety in the UK or Norway (they have sometimes suggested more constructive alternatives to some ideas) and Medawar suspects that they wouldn't have opposed such efforts in the USA, had they ever seriously transpired, which they did not.

Transocean, on the other hand, has links to a very heavy lobbying outfit run by a former Democratic Congressman, Bill Brewster. This investment seems to have paid off for them, so far.

Now for the pertinent technical implications:

The 2006 improvement notice was over a failure to test blowout preventers. This cannot have been a failure to test that they had been manufactured properly, or the HSE would have served the notice on the manufacturer and not Transocean! However, it is impossible for the manufacturer to ship a blowout preventer to its customers, in a fully-armed state where it would function immediately on arrival. It could not be transported without incident in the "armed" state and it certainly couldn't be safely handled on the rig and installed on the oil (or gas) well in that state.

The installer, Transocean or their sub-contractors, must prepare the equipment for installation when it arrives on the rig, test that they have done this correctly, and then install it. Then they must prepare it for operation after installation, and again, test that this has been done properly and that the device will work. Not carrying out this chain of actions properly was what earned Transocean the improvement notice in 2006.

In practice, what happens is that the equipment leaves the factory with covers fitted over every hole, and with some kind of pin or bolt immobilizing everything that can move.
Some parts may be packed with grease to protect them in transit, some fluid reservoirs may not be filled. It leaves the factory in a state which allows it to be transported and which will protect all its working parts from corrosion or incidental damage.

When equipment is on the rig, as much of this stuff is taken off as can be done safely, and any working fluids are loaded, protective grease is removed and where appropriate, replaced by whatever working lubricant is required. This procedure is documented in detail, and although complicated, is no more complicated than it needs to be. Someone signs a worksheet to show that everything required at that stage has been done. There will be an agreed test procedure that verifies, as far as possible, that everything that has been released so far, will work as intended.

Then the equipment can be lowered into the sea and installed, by divers or robots depending on how deep the ocean floor is. These days, robots are used more and more, even in relatively shallow waters, because there's no such thing as a completely safe deep sea industrial dive. Once the equipment is installed, it can be armed for operation and any remaining covers removed to allow pipes to be connected, etc. Then there's another test procedure before anyone can pack up and go home, or move the rig onto the next oilfield. (Transocean were apparently under pressure from their next customer to finish working for BP and move the Deepwater Horizon onto their oilfield.)

Because this happens towards the end of what may have been a months-long operation, even if the operation over-runs by just a few days, these final preparation and test procedures of the blowout preventer are more likely to be performed under pressure of time than the actual drilling work. This may explain why so many of Transocean's accidents have involved blowout preventers, not because these are necessarily flawed, but because they have to be installed with the end of the job in sight and management openly staring at its watch.

Now, the way in which the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer failed, completely, in all its stages, isn't consistent with some of the normal causes, such as a foriegn body, defective parts, etc. There are four stages; two, or even three, defective parts do not cause all four stages to fail, and a foreign body would have to be many feet long to affect more than one stage.

If there was an environmental cause, such as temperature or pressure jamming the equipment completely, then this would have been discovered years ago when similar equipment was tested after proper installation at a similar depth. This is another reason why the HSE likes the tests to be done each time: to gather information on how far this kind of equipment can be relied upon in general, as well as to ensure that each installation is as safe as it can be.

Just about the only thing (short of highly competent sabotage) that can credibly immobilize all four stages of a blowout preventer, is something, the only thing, that is designed to immobilize all four stages: the safety devices (bolts) that are fitted at the factory to make it safe for transport and installation.

The blowout preventer failure was key to the whole disaster, and to any immediately effective remedy for the oilspill. Because BP had the whole power and fury of the US Government turned on them the moment they started to ask Transocean to account for this, BP have been working blind ever since, although there are ample circumstantial grounds for them to suspect, that if their supplier, Transocean, made an error, that was where it would be. BP may be held responsible, but it is deeply irrational to both deny them any right to inquire how other companies may have contributed to the disaster, and to make them fix it all none-the-less.

And even if BP have to guarantee that clean up costs will be met, it's not in the public interest to deny them the right to recover some of those costs from other companies that made mistakes, because that just gives those companies, however well represented they are on Capitol Hill, a free pass to commit mistakes and cause accidents in the future.

It is time for BP to act on suspicion, even if the White House is determined to deny them the evidence, and try, so far as is possible, to repeat the post-installation arming procedures for the blowout preventer, that Transocean should have done, regardless of what any surviving worksheets say was done or not. With the oilspill collection cap in place, not all of the stages are still accessible, but even if one stage could be activated, the amount of oil being spilled could be dramatically reduced.

And but for President Obama's heavy-handed, highly partisan and frankly bigoted intervention, that might have been possible a few weeks ago, which would have saved the vast majority of the oil that has been spilled, though sadly, none of the blood.

It is very obviously true that nobody in American politics now actually wants BP to succeed in stopping the spill, by doing something which they might have done a month earlier but for American politics.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Reality of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

After weeks of unrelenting efforts by President Obama to pretend that the "worst ecological disaster in American history" is a British plot against the American people. (He pronounces "British Petroleum" the way someone in a pointy white hood would pronounce a word meaning "member of the African-American community".) Some more facts emerge:

There was a worse oil spill, Itxoc 1 on the Mexican side of the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, which American politicians, media and public appear to remain unaware of to this day. 150,000,000 barrels before it was capped, according to BBC Newsnight, which may have meant gallons, see comment below (they read off autocues: a BBC script would have the right thing written on it ) Other sources state something like 9,000,000 barrels over ten months. Flow rate estimated somewhere from the same as, to double that, of Deepwater Horizon, which has already been cut by more than half and should be sorted within another two months, so even if flow rates the same, it cannot be more than a third as bad as Ixtoc 1, which is rated as the third worst oil spill in history.

After the Amoco Cadiz disaster on the French coast, in 1978, the American owners didn't pay a cent in compensation until forced to, by legal action from the French Government, in 1990. BP were settling reasonable claims from ordinary citizens within a fortnight: Presumably, Mr Obama must think they should have paid in advance of the disaster? The Deepwater Horizon leak would have to go completely uncapped for 90-120 days to equal the amount of crude spilled by the Amoco Cadiz. Although the French succeeded in getting compensation, Medawar is not aware of anyone in the (British) Channel Islands getting any change out of Amoco at all, although Herm in particular suffered a lot of contamination. Medawar remembers that every shop on Guernsey at the time ran out of lighter fuel, as this was the only available solvent that got the stuff off people's skin. Most annoyance they'd suffered since the Nazi occupation.

19,000 barrels is roughly one sixth of the average daily amount of crude that American companies have spilled as a matter of routine (hence, no clean-up) in the Niger Delta for the past twenty years. It's only bad when the oil hits American beaches, not when it's in an African town's drinking water and soaking into their fields. The far right in America were trying to pretend, during the elections, that President Obama was rather more African than African American. If Obama was even 1% African at heart, this murderous hypocrisy would haunt him, but it does not.

All of these spills put together are smaller than the 1991 spill in the Arabian Gulf during the first Gulf War. The fishermen of Dubai, at least, were still in business the last time Medawar wandered past and someone attempted to sell him counterfeit mineral water. (Nice try.)

The Daily Mail reports that one television crew from New York sat in a bar in Louisiana bitterly complaining that they'd been forced to spend several days in a boat until they got an oil slick that looked scary enough to be broadcast. Which will put older British readers in mind of the TV Newsroom satire "Drop The Dead Donkey". (The clip is from : Series 2, episode 1. The relevant bit is 15-16 minutes in.)

America, meanwhile, is no longer an economic superpower, far less the "hyperpower" of some fevered political imaginations in Washington DC, and it will do well to even survive the rest of this very troubled century without allies. Having the President go on TV every other night to reiterate his contempt of the ally whose soldiers have been fighting along side America's in Afghanistan for nine years now, is sending a clear and strong message to ALL of America's allies that it's probably best not to bother.

Update: The Governor of Mississippi has stated that so far, the press coverage , and Federal Government hype, of the oil spill has done his state more economic damage than the spill itself.
People may argue with him, but the presentation has indeed been more in the spirit of Damien Day than Lord Reith.