Monday, May 24, 2010

National Security on the Sea Floor

Note to the Pentagon: protecting national security includes being able to operate on the ocean floor.

It makes sense to me that President Obama hasn’t yet declared martial law on the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Oil from a deep-water well is spilling into the gulf at a rate, we can say now, probably at least 40 times the oil company’s original estimate of 800 barrels a day, producing probably the largest oil spill in history. The oil well at this point no longer has any functioning hardware, but the oil workers at least have some experience with the deep-water submarines they are using and some ideas about what they can try to do.

The chances of BP getting anywhere with any of the measures it is considering are slim. BP’s “worst-case scenario” is that a relief well becomes operational in September and allows the original well to be sealed. The actual scenarios we face are far worse than this. I have already explained why a relief well could make things worse just as easily as it could lead to a fix. No one should be surprised if the oil spill is still going on, still getting worse, when the year is over.

The actual worst-case scenario is not that the oil continues for a few months, but that nothing can be done, and the oil spill continues indefinitely, for centuries. I say this not as flippant response or as an exaggeration, but as a sober recognition that we do not have the technology to control any oil well at the depth where we are working. Considering what could happen, this is a situation where the logical approach is to try everything that is at hand — to let BP attempt whatever its engineers can think of until it is obvious that they are just grasping at straws.

It makes sense because if BP can’t do it, what comes next? I suppose a joint operation of the Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy, and NASA might make sense. Together, they may have the ability to work on a pipeline underwater in an alien environment inaccessible to humans, but there is little reason to expect quick results. They’ll be coming at the problem cold, having to create new technology before they can do the first things.

I hope someone in the Pentagon is already drawing up plans for a more immediate ability to respond to deep-sea problems. It really doesn’t make sense that a catastrophic sea-floor event is put in the hands of an international corporation just because the military doesn’t have any operational expertise in that arena. Now that the world has seen how much damage can be done just by poking a hole in the seabed, it’s something a military enemy would obviously think to do as part of a coordinated military attack. There has to be a way to protect against this. The same capabilities would also protect against the mistakes of oil companies.