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"Like Open-Heart Surgery in the Dark"

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Aspen, Colorado -- That was BP America CEO Lamar McKay's description of the challenge BP now faces in trying to fix the blowout-preventer valve that failed and turned BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling project into a gusher of oil, a mini Spindletop on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

But after watching BP's efforts to jury-rig a huge upside-down funnel over the spill, and learning just how long it will take to drill a relief well that BP had previously promised could be started "in a few days," it seems to me that what's really like "open-heart surgery in the dark" is deepwater drilling for oil itself. Several days of conversations with experts in the far simpler challenge of onshore drilling for natural gas  have left me convinced that the oil industry simply does not know how to drill in deep water with the necessary margin of safety.

One senior gas executive told me that in all the contingency planning she has done for gas wells, modeling various crises that could arise on a rig, a blowout of this scale had never come up. Some of the engineers here seemed fairly sure that the explosion coming up the well pipe must have been so large that it had simply damaged the blowout preventer, but others wondered whether it had been installed properly. I learned for the first time that Norwegian oil wells have an entire secondary blowout-preventer system as a backup because of the rough waters in the North Sea. That kind of redundancy is useful if there's an equipment failure, but it wouldn't necessarily help in a situation where the blowout was big enough to destroy the equipment.

Then there's the problem of testing the reliability of equipment that will be used under such extreme conditions. How can we accurately model this kind of an explosion and these kinds of pressures the hundreds of times that are necessary to really know what we are doing?

So it is truly repulsive to watch House Minority Leader John Boehner parrot the "drill baby drill" mantra that his party relied on so heavily in 2008 -- even as the oil spill hits the coast.

At its heart, though, this disaster is a monument not to weak regulations or to human error but to greed and hubris - the willingness to push our exploitation and technology far beyond the limits of our knowledge on how to operate safely.

Note: The Sierra Club is holding rallies around the country to support those living in the Gulf and demand action from BP and our nation's leaders. One of the first will be tomorrow (May 8) in New Orleans with Sierra Club President Allison Chin.


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