Drilling, technology out of balance

Published 10:56 pm Thursday, May 6, 2010

For all the unknowns involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, a few things are clear: Louisiana’s fragile coast, already under siege by hurricanes, saltwater intrusion, subsidence, canal-building and invasive species like the nutria, will need a long, dirty, expensive cleanup. Fingers will be pointed and blame assessed, often in scattershot fashion. Had no oil leaked from the well at all, the explosion and fire would be counted as a tragedy for the 11 lives lost.

No one can say for sure what caused the explosion that sank the massive platform. Nor is it known yet why the backup systems for backup systems failed. Yet it’s also clear that the amazing technology that brought deepwater oil and gas production to the Gulf of Mexico advanced much faster than the methods for dealing with the consequences of accidents 5,000 feet beneath the Gulf of Mexico’s surface.

The phrase that comes to mind has been used to describe the run-up to events as diverse as 9/11 and the fatal 1967 Apollo 1 fire. We had a failure of imagination. We hope that time is over. The energy industry must find the wherewithal to develop better ways to prevent and to cope with such disasters, and the effort deserves substantial government support. …

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Deepwater production requires technical solutions to problems that occur in an undersea environment as hostile as outer space. Pressure at 5,000 feet is 150 times that of the atmosphere at the Gulf’s surface, and the temperature stays near freezing.

The inability of submarine robots to stop the oil leak demonstrates the difficulties. Now, as a potential ecological disaster washes ashore on our beautiful, economically vital coastline, experts are scrambling to find solutions like giant, inverted funnels and months-long drilling projects.

To ensure our energy supply and a measure of energy independence, we have to have deepwater drilling. And to have deepwater drilling, we have to do better than we’ve done since the leak began.

The Daily World, Opelousas, La.