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?