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Here Comes Ingenuity! Offshore Drilling Will Be Better, Cleaner, Safer in the New Era (Julian Simon speaks to us today)

“Material insufficiency and environmental problems have their benefits, over and beyond the improvement which they invoke. They focus the attention of individuals and communities, and constitute a set of challenges which can bring out the best in people” (emphasis added).

- Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (1996), p. 587.

“We need our problems, though this does not imply that we should purposely create additional problems for ourselves.”

- Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (1996), p. 588.

If he were alive, Julian Simon (1932–1998) would apply his view that our problems can make us better to the worst-case scenario that BP uniquely brought to life in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

Simon argued that there was a third driving force or condition for human improvement beyond the the institutional  framework for progress (private property, voluntary exchange, the rule of law) and the insightful reasons given for capitalistic progress (motivation, effective use of knowledge, trial and error feedback, etc.).

The third element is the very fact of problems and setbacks, which create challenges that human ingenuity would not need to confront and solve as much as in an incremental improvement process.

The recent Gulf oil spill was certainly not anticipated by anyone in government or in private industry. Yet it happened. And BOOM, the whole offshore industry had to lock heads to try to find the best way to contain the spill and to eventually stop the same. After 87 days, the runaway well was capped. After about 110 days, the cement held, and the well was entombed.

And now will come a new generation of offshore technology to ensure that such an accident does not happen again (see below). Whatever the combination of new regulation, insurance requirements, or just best practices for cost minimization, there must be sound, failsafe, redundant technology for safe, spillage-free deepwater exploration. The reprinted article before is one early recognition of this fact.

APPENDIX: OFFSHORE DRILLING: Disaster Will Lead to Leaps in Engineering Innovation, Greenwire, July 20, 2010.

Disaster begets innovation more often than success does. The modern feats of technology often stemmed from some inevitable mistakes, say historians of engineering.

“It’s a great source of knowledge — and humbling, too — sometimes that’s necessary,” said Henry Petroski, a historian of engineering at Duke University and author of the book, “Success Through Failure.” “Nobody wants failures. But you also don’t want to let a good crisis go to waste.”

The Deepwater Horizon incident, experts say, will provide rich fodder to spur innovation into developing safe and complex techniques to drill into ever-deeper waters. Among lessons learned from this incident are ones about the importance of blowout preventers — the switches on top of wells that cut off the oil supply and are often the last line of defense. The devices were not working in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Environmentalists learned a different lesson about the need to move away from offshore drilling and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

But the history of engineering suggests that though devices may become unfavorable, whole ideas do not become obsolete. Following the Hindenburg disaster where a hydrogen-filled blimp exploded, engineers simply built airships with inert helium gas. Other disasters including the sinking of the Titanic, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown and the collapse of the World Trade Center all taught engineers to come to terms with flaws and evolve.

Engineers think that the present disaster will help wells become safer as designers search for solutions to reduce risk. The profession itself is inherently problem-solving and would not concern itself with the politics or ethics of reducing dependence on oil, say historians.

Forensic engineers say that analyzing the Deepwater Horizon disaster will take time, and investigations will be necessary to refine the art of drilling. One of the biggest lessons so far: to build blowout preventers with more than one blind shear ram. These blades slice right through the pipe to cut off flow, and two of these plates would be better than one.

“It’s like our personal lives,” said David Fowler, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who teaches a course on forensic engineering. “Failure can force us to make hard decisions” (William Broad, New York Times, July 20). –GV

4 comments

1 Charles Battig { 08.11.10 at 8:28 am }

The engineering learning examples above omitted the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Of course this took place during an era when pragmatic scientific thought was given a bit more free reign.

Now, the Obama administration’s first response is to call in the lawyers; the second is to prohibit the offending activity, e.g. deep water drilling.

The mystical “yes we can” has been replaced by the dogmatic “no, you can not.”

2 Ferdinand E. Banks { 08.12.10 at 2:13 am }

At the national and corporate level, failures might often help. At the personal level, on the average, I can’t see it. Failure helped me because it gave me what Vince Lombardi (coach of the great Green Bay Packers) said was necessary to win, which was ____, but I was lucky. Everything considered, on the average, Professor Fowler has it backwards. Failure doesn’t drive Bill and Sally into the library and gym, where the winning moves can be worked out, but in front of the TV screen where some lousy soap opera is on.

3 Texas Power Outages: A Preliminary Analysis (Cold snap brings failure–isolated ERCOT an issue) :: Texas Tech News { 02.04.11 at 3:15 pm }

[...] No doubt coal and gas-fueled generators across the state are reexamining their readiness for extreme coal weather. I suspect we could survive another severe storm as early as next week if one comes about. By this time next year, ERCOT and the industry will be well prepared to weather another storm like we’ve had this week. Our problems can make us better, as the late Julian Simon emphasized. [...]

4 Drill, No-Spill High TechInstitute for Energy Research | Institute for Energy Research { 05.07.12 at 9:11 am }

[...] of human ingenuity, which is not a depleting resource but an expanding one. And two, his adage that our problems make us better is evident with much of the new technical equipment designed for safety and [...]

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