Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book Review: "Fire on the Horizon"

It's about 2 years since everyone was glued to their TV's watching ROV's try and plug a hole in the bottom of the sea. Since then, numerous books have been published chronicling the explosion and the spill. Here are just a few writups of the multitude of books:

9 Books - LA Times

Publishers have no shortage of books - NY Times

In Book Form - MoJo

Each book focuses on a slightly different aspect of the disaster. After reading a few reviews, I chose Fire On The Horizon: The Untold Story Of The Gulf Oil Disaster by John Konrad and Tom Schroder.
Fire On The Horizon: The Untold Story Of The Gulf Oil Disaster
Konrad holds an Unlimited Master's licence and has worked for many years on oil rigs. In his off time, he started a Maritime site called GCaptain. It's actually how I first heard about the Deepwater Horizon fire (one of the reasons I picked the book; they beat everyone else to the punch).

The book gives excellent background to the leadup to the disaster. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the rig's construction in a South Korean shipyard. The maritime background of Konrad helps out a lot. The book nails the maritime aspects of the disaster. Konrad also knew some of the members of the crew, since he worked for Transocean for a time and graduated CUNY Maritime at about the same time as some of the maritime crew.

The cultural aspects of life onboard a rig, while probably not telling 100% true stories, does convey the culture pretty well. They do a good job in humanizing the crew of the rig.

I have two big criticisms of the book. First, the book is overly kind to the boots on the ground. Normally, I'd agree, but I'm not quite sure in this case. I think there is some blame that deserves to say with the field team. The book also really lets Captain Kutcha off light (although I believe Konrad was friends with Ktucha, so there's one explanation). The other criticism is when they get to the complicated petroleum engineering of the actual well construction, it's just a poorly written summary of David Hammer's writing. They lean on the Picayune's writing without giving anything new nor do they even properly summarize it. It takes them more than half of the book to even get to the drilling operations. Pages 128-130 really needs some editing because it's clunky and if I didn't know exactly what they were trying to explain before I read a sentence, I'd be lost. That was pretty disappointing. I'll hunt for another book to compliment that part.* There's also very little coverage of the oil spill (the first half is background, then 1/3 is the actual Macondo well and fire, then the balance is aftermath, spill, widows, etc.).

There's also one thing that I knew about, but didn't realize. What did the Titanic and the Deepwater Horizon have in common? Not enough lifeboat space. A major problem with current lifeboat standards is IMO rules on dictate lifeboat design based off "50th-percentile" standards. In other words, the lifeboat design is only meant to accommodate the average member of the public (~160 lbs.), not the average rig hand. On a Gulf of Mexico rig, almost everyone weighs at least 180 lbs. and there's guaranteed to be at least a few 280-300 lbs workers. The Deepwater Horizon only tested its full lifeboat capacity once in Korea, and that was with 110-lb. Koreans. Once in the Gulf of Mexico, given the larger crew, the Deepwater Horizon couldn't actually conduct a full evacuation without resorting to the use of inflatable rafts. If you also had any seriously injured personnel on a stretcher, you'd lose another 6 seats per stretcher on top of that!

This isn't something new. I heard about this years ago. Here's an International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) notice from before the Deepwater Horizon incident:

Anthropomorphic compatibility. Most SOLAS-approved lifeboats have been approved on the basis of an assumed occupant mass of 75 kg (≈ 165 lb). The IMO has recently revised its requirements to increase the assumed occupant mass for lifeboats on most new installations to 82.5 kg (≈ 182 lb). IMO did not alter the associated seat width standard, which remains 430 mm (≈ 17 in), when increasing the assumed occupant mass to 82.5 kg. A so-called “Gulf of Mexico standard” is being used by some that assumes an occupant weight of 210 lbs (≈ 95 kg) with a corresponding seat width of 21 in (≈ 530 mm). This matter is also being addressed by coastal State authorities in the North Sea.

Every project I've worked on has used 220-240 lbs. as an average weight. A company I work for actually did a survey of their employees entitled "How Big is Bubba's Butt" that was the source of the higher figure. It's also common to leave room for one stretcher without compromising seating capacity. Also, davit-launched inflatable liferafts are unreasonably complicated to use in an emergency situation.

Every large Gulf of Mexico installation should be audited to ensure that they can actually conduct an evacuation in a realistic manner. Tests should be robust (a sign of a nice and rigorous test is failure, like this one). Not leaving enough margin for actual crew weight or overly complicated launching isn't sufficient.

* Debating between Bob Cavnar's book and Achenbach's book. Anyone read either?

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