Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BP and Coffee or “Why I’m Not Laughing”

This video clip has been circulating the interwebs appearing on various friends Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. Even a few Objectivists friends have linked to it approvingly. I admit I chuckled the first time I watched it as well. I’ll ask you to watch it and see what your first response is.

The fact is that I no longer find it funny. In fact, I find it an insulting smear. I admit to being seduced by it’s premises, and after thinking about why it was funny to me I realized I accepted a premise hidden in its humor which is absolutely false. The answer lies in the answer to a simple question. Why is it funny? For me analyzing automated emotional responses is interesting, many times because I find unexpected implicit judgment embedded in them.

The video portrays BP executives spilling coffee and then attempting to clean up that spill unsuccessfully. Obviously a metaphor for BP’s handling of the recent Gulf spill caused by the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. The executives try all sorts of bizarre and overly complex solutions to mitigate the spill, ultimately ending in a failed attempt under the direction of movie actor Kevin Costner.

The essence of the humor here is the executives myriad of failed attempts in the face our own knowledge of a remedy that is simple, commonly known by all, and virtually guaranteed of success. One could simply use a paper towel to wipe up the spill (an irony made more concrete by the use of such a paper towel, not for its obvious use, but instead to draw a schematic for another overly complex failed mechanical attempt). The video is funny because the executives are portrayed as buffoons. If we laugh at those things we find insignificant, then it is the executives status as incompetent clowns that forms the basis of the humor in this case.

But does this metaphor actually hold? A simple question reveals the problem with the metaphor. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon incident, what is represented by the metaphorical paper towel? What is the solution to this incident that is obvious even to you, simple, and has an almost 100% guarantee of success? Do you know? You must know if the metaphor is to hold. But you don’t. I’m certainly not a petroleum engineer or deepwater geologist. I don’t know what it is. This is because the metaphor doesn’t hold, not in the least.

Drilling for oil a mile beneath the ocean’s surface is a complex technological marvel requiring teams of men with highly specialized knowledge in order to succeed. Staunching a gusher such as the Deepwater Horizon leak is an equally amazing marvel requiring the same men, with the same types of knowledge. Consider that there are only about a hundred deep water drilling rigs in the world capable of drilling oil wells at this type of depth. There is no “paper towel” in this case. Capping this well is one of the most complex engineering feats and only a few men have the requisite knowledge to even be able to attempt it.

And yet it is these men that the video attempts to smear. The video trivializes the nature of the problem before us and belittles the very heroes who will be responsible for saving the day.

And aren’t these men responsible for the spill? As someone who works in the petrochemical industry, it is not at all clear that this is the case. Determining negligence in cases of complex technical problems is a complex issue. The fact that the spill exists does not in any way imply that there was negligent behavior. And it is my experience that the largest companies are usually safer and more conservative in their practices than smaller companies. Certainly if BP is negligent, then it bears liability in the spill; however, this is far from proven.

But what do these responses, our implicit belief in the “paper towel” solution, our seeming justified impatience with BP and a desire to believe them incompetent and negligent, all have in common? In his blog post “Plug the Damn Hole!” Tom Bowden highlights the fundamental that I believe underlies this response: ignoring the causal. When one ignores the actual nature of a thing and its consequences, then all one is left with is whim. We wish the gusher were plugged so we become impatient, yet ignore what it takes to get such events under control. Our impatience is unwarranted. It’s based on whim. We believe the spill should be pluggable immediately as if one was wiping up a coffee spill, so all the efforts and machinations of the men working on solving this problem must signify incompetence. Our judgment of incompetence in unwarranted. It’s based upon whim. Our political leaders issue directives, haul oil company CEO’s before committees and call their responses inadequate only in hindsight and yet they will not change what it will take to solve this problem. Their fury is unwarranted. It’s based upon whim.

The fact is that the petrochemical industry is one of the safest industries on the planet. I am safer working in the average modern petrochemical plant today than I am living in my home and driving to work. If it’s true that oil companies have little experience plugging leaks like this it is ironically because such incidents are rare. It is because of the competence of men like these that we don’t have leaks like this everyday. And so their inexperience is a sign of their extreme competence, and the fact that we’re operating at the edge of our knowledge.

This problem will take time to solve specifically because it is a daunting problem to solve. The limited resource here is not money. It is specifically the brainpower to work on this problem. That brainpower is limited. There are relatively few men with the experience and knowledge to contribute to the solution of the problem. The minds who build the equipment used are rare, because the equipment and operations are so complex that only a few men have the knowledge to build them. But these men are not created overnight. It takes time and investment. What fuels that time and investment? Profits. Oil company profits to be exact.

In my post recounting my experience with cancer I said I wanted as much profit going to pharmaceutical companies as possible so that they could put as many scientists as possible working on cures for cancer. I said that there was an urgency fueling this desire since my life was at stake should my cancer recur. Today we’re faced with a similar urgency. I hope the leak gets staunched as soon as possible, and for that reason I advocate laissez faire capitalism. Because profits ensure that we don't have shortages of brainpower when we need it.

Some on the right are calling this crisis Obama’s “Katrina,” saying that his inaction will be his example of poor leadership. I don’t think it is. The perpetuation of the spill and his complicity in it will only fuel his ability to advance his environmental agenda. It will give him the momentum to make his deepwater drilling moratorium a complete ban and to further regulate. It will allow him to get cap and trade legislation enacted, thereby crippling US industry. In the words of Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and environmentalist, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” [as a tool to influence policy]

What could Obama be doing, or what could be doing to put in place conditions that would help resolve this and future situations? Here are a few things among many options:

  1. Advocate the lifting of bans on drilling in lower risk areas like ANWR and shallow water continental shelf. Today we are drilling in high risk areas because cheaper less risky sources of oil have been deemed off limits. Technologically, this is the equivalent of banning farming in the Midwest and relegating farmers to ply their trade on the moon.
  2. Accept offers of aid in the form of material and most importantly, “mindpower” from other countries and other companies. Up to now the US has politely declined such aid.
  3. There is one proven technique that has been used to rapidly stop deep water oil leaks, successful in 4 out of 5 attempts by Russia in the 1960’s and 1970’s, quickly and permanently stopping those oil leaks. That technique is a controlled nuclear detonation, a “nuclear option.”  The US government can authorize the use of such an option, if the conditions of this well favor its use.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your view of the video. It is not funny. Regarding the nuclear option, I am reading that if there is a methane gas pocket down there any explosions could produce catastrophic results. For example:


I don't know enough to say whether this is valid or not. But this oil spill is a wet dream for the Left. They can use it to further grow government and "prove" that free markets "don't work".

Doug Bandler

Kendall J said...

Hi Doug,

Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that each well head has to be evaluated and options chosen because they fit the context of the situation. The nuclear option may not be right for this situation.

However the adminstration, specifically the department of energy dismissed the option out of hand. Mostly, and ironically, because it goes against his policy agenda.

Diana Hsieh said...

Like you, I found the video funny at first, but I think your analysis is totally spot-on. Thanks for the premise-check!

Lynne said...

Good post.

Except for the woman’s hairstyle, I found nothing humorous in this video. I didn’t watch it when it shot by me a few times yesterday because I suspected the coffee as oil spill analogy had severe limitations as well as the fact that it doesn’t seem like much to laugh about. I only guessed at how moronic and despicable it would attempt to make the businessmen seem.

Sandi Trixx said...

As an engineer in the pertrochem industry, I greatly appreciate your commentary and defense of the brilliant minds that enrich our lives. Thanks!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hmm. I thought the video was funny until more and more coffee was spilled. But after that, I found it tiresome. Not sure why--I'll have to think about it.

At the very beginning, I think it was funny because it so accurately portrayed one problem: should a solution (paper towel) not be immediately available, why not mitigate the damage? Where it fell apart: BP was willing to work on it, so the people at the table should have represented more than BP, as were the states, but the executive branch not only refused solutions, but actively blocked them.

In my first career as a geologist, I worked in the oil industry for a short time. My take on the problem was pretty much like yours. Here's what I wrote about it clear back around Day 50:


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