Saturday, May 1, 2010

Failure To Anticipate

Damn, I’m so sick of this shit:
BP suggested in a 2009 exploration plan and environmental impact analysis for the well that an accident leading to a giant crude oil spill — and serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals — was unlikely, or virtually impossible.

Where have we heard this before?

How about the failure to anticipate 9/11. The failure to anticipate post-war problems in Iraq. The failure to anticipate the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Nobody anticipated the failure of the northeast electric grid in August 2003. Nobody anticipated that deregulating the energy market in California would make consumers vulnerable to greedy Enron energy traders manipulating the energy supply for fun and profit.

Nobody could have anticipated the breach of levees protecting New Orleans. Or the collapse of a major interstate bridge in Minneapolis. Certainly nobody anticipated big shitpile blowing up in everyone’s faces.

Locally, TVA failed to anticipate the breach of a leaky coal ash pond, spilling 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge onto East Tennessee.

And on ... and on ...

Once upon a time we were able to anticipate things. We were able to set up systems that prepared for the worst, and mostly things ran pretty well. Now we stand slack-jawed in amazement as one major fail after another rains down all around us.

What the hell is going on?

I think it’s two-fold. I think part of it is that we’ve been blessed over the past 50 years to live in a country where we did worry about infrastructure and regulatory measures. Things worked pretty smoothly, for the most part. Sure there have been problems, but mostly they were few and far between so we become comfortable--maybe even complacent. We started unraveling the oversight which had shielded us from the worst disasters, and we stopped paying attention to infrastructure. Predictably, things have started falling apart.

But there’s a larger issue at play. We live in a far more complex world than ever before. And with greater technological complexity comes a need to change how we calculate risk, how we “anticipate.”

Grist’s Peter Meyer touched on this after the Kingston Coal Ash disaster and that post is worth revisiting here. It’s an excellent post which doesn’t lend itself to pulling out easy excerpts. So I urge everyone to read it.

In a nutshell, Meyer explains that things like Environmental Impact Statements are too often wrong because they

are still based on what economists call “expected utility theory” (EUT). Based on past experience and recorded data, we project the probability of different events and use those odds in combination with the “utility” or value associated with each alternative event to arrive at an expected value for a course of action.

But in the case of the Kingston coal ash disaster,

The expected value calculation appears to have assigned a zero probability to a spill as massive as the one that occurred. That’s as if you carried an umbrella in the rain even though you might melt if you got wet, and assigned a zero probability to the possibility of high winds or hail. That’s not rational.

Assigning that zero likelihood also meant that there was no serious effort to calculate the cost of such a massive failure.

What this helps to see is that the expected value calculation—and all our NEPA-mandated Environmental Impact Statements for federal projects —depend on key assumptions that are unlikely to be true even if we make conscious allowance for normal accidents we tend to ignore.

Getting back to the B.P. oil spill, it seems we have the exact same scenario:

The plan for the Deepwater Horizon well, filed with the federal Minerals Management Service, said repeatedly that it was "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities."

The company conceded a spill would impact beaches, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas, but argued that "due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected."

Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs, Mississippi-based environmental lawyer and board member for the Gulf Restoration Network, said he doesn’t see anything in the document suggesting BP addressed the kind of technology needed to control a spill at that depth of water.

Just like with the TVA coal ash spill, it seems the BP plan assigned a zero probability to a spill, meaning that there was no serious effort to calculate the cost of a massive failure.

In other words: a failure to anticipate. Going into this project planners already determined that there would be no well failure, because no wells had ever failed at that depth. That’s not just unrational, it’s not factual: just as with the TVA coal ash pond, which had been leaking for years before finally bursting, this Deepwater Horizon rig had a nine-year history of spills and accidents. Still, it appears a plan for drilling the world’s deepest offshore oil well was written--and approved--with the assumption there would be no spill.

And I daresay every Environmental Impact Assessment for an offshore oil plan has that same flaw.

Planners, regulators and policy analysts need to take a look at this. There is a deep flaw in how we calculate risk. Our world is riskier but we seem to be living in a happy ignorance. Relax, don't worry, nothing could ever go wrong!

This is a dangerous attitude. We cannot afford to live in happy ignorance any longer. The old adage "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong," should be the rule when calculating environmental risks in sensitive areas.