Catastrophe or Opportunity

Catastrophe or Opportunity

© David Burton 2010

BP Oil Rig Explosion

      Every “catastrophe” provides opportunity. The opportunity arises if we focus on learning from the catastrophe and taking steps to make another similar catastrophe less likely to occur in the future. Too often, there are those who wring their hands and simply sob at the consequences of the catastrophe instead of stepping back, analyzing the causes of the catastrophe and taking the actions needed to prevent the catastrophe from recurring.

      Recent examples: 3-mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, the recent West Virginia Mine Disaster, the Columbia Space Shuttle, the Hubble telescope, and now the BP oil drilling platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

      On September 18, 1908, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge of the U.S. Army Signal Corps was in a group evaluating the Wright plane at Fort Myer, Va. He was up 75 ft with Orville Wright when the propeller hit a bracing wire and was broken, throwing the plane out of control, killing Selfridge and seriously injuring Wright. Lt. Selfridge became the first aircraft fatality. (Ref. 1) Fortunately, rather than throwing up their collective hands at this catastrophe and declaring that the newly developed airplane was inherently unsafe and urging development to cease, the aviation industry learned from this and several subsequent events and seized the opportunity to develop the aircraft into one of the safest and most reliable means of modern mass transportation.

      On January 10, 1954, a De Havilland Comet jet airliner crashed off the Italian island of Elba, killing 29 passengers and a crew of six. This was the first of two related Comet crashes. In the second related crash on April 8, 1954, 14 passengers and seven crew members died when the plane went down off the coast near Naples. The Comet was the world's first passenger jet airliner, designed and built in Britain. Public inquiry into the Comet airliner disasters heard that metal fatigue was the most likely cause of two crashes.

      In what was called "one of the most remarkable pieces of scientific detective work ever done", the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, subjected models, full-size aircraft and replicas to the most elaborate and searching tests ever carried out on an airliner. One fragment collected from the scene of the crash showed that a crack had developed due to metal fatigue near the radio direction finding aerial window, situated in the front of the cabin roof. The investigators found that a small weakness such as this would quickly deteriorate under pressure, and would rapidly lead to a sudden and general break-up of the fuselage.

      After the conclusive evidence revealed in the inquiry that metal fatigue concentrated at the corners of the aircraft's windows had caused the crashes, all aircraft were redesigned with rounded windows. (Ref. 2.)

      Here again, the opportunity was seized to take a disaster in the air, determine its root cause, and to incorporate the lessons learned from the catastrophe into new aircraft design, fabrication and maintenance procedures that further improved aircraft safety.

      The aviation industry is probably the best example of turning catastrophes into opportunities. The results are clear to all. Air travel is one of the safest modes of travel in today’s world. Each “catastrophe” leads to exhaustive review, analysis, testing and, very frequently, to new rules and procedures to further improve air travel safety.

      With respect to the oil rig explosion catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, we need to take a broader look at the situation and consider the opportunities that have and will result from it. Despite what some will claim, the sky is not falling. Some of these considerations are described below.

      “Instead of backing off of domestic drilling, the United States should use technology for enhanced recovery to maintain production at existing offshore wells”
      “The Gulf rig disaster has rightfully raised serious environmental concerns, but they need to be placed in proper context.
      “All economic considerations involve trade-offs. Environmental concerns must be balanced against the requirements for affordable energy and energy security.” (Ref. 3.)

      “. . . despite this spill, the overall record of offshore drilling is exceptional. . . . some 75 percent of the Gulf rigs were hit in 2005 by two back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. However, no major spills resulted. According to the Energy Information Administration, offshore drilling has maintained a 99.999 percent safety record since 1975, observing that only .001 percent of the oil pumped since then has spilled, mostly in small quantities that were easy to clean up.
      “The Gulf explosion illustrates the risks associated with energy production. But all decisions must take into account cost, benefits and risks. . . Cool heads need to prevail.” (Ref. 4.)

      There are lessons to be learned from the loss of the BP oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico and these lessons learned will be turned into opportunities. “New redundancies for blowout preventers will be mandated by law, including radio-operated valves. Drilling contractors will see greater government oversight – as well as a more muscular U.S. Minerals Management Service – perhaps even over standardized techniques for casing and cementing ultrahigh-pressure wells. Already, BP has implemented more expansive testing for blowout preventers at all its deepwater sites.”
      “Good new regulations should introduce subsea response capability, require geater redundancy in safety systems and focus on risk reduction.” (Ref. 5)

      There is one prime example where the naysayers won out – the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident. In retrospect, the Three Mile Island accident was not a catastrophe. There were no fatalities and no damage outside the plant. But, nuclear power foes managed to portray the accident as a catastrophe and stopped the building of new nuclear power plants in the United States for the next 40 years, resulting in significant dependence on imported foreign petroleum and increased air pollution caused by the burning of energy-producing petroleum and coal. Instead of taking the opportunity to learn and profit from the lesson of Three Mile Island, America simply gave up after the (non-)catastrophe.

  1. Famous Firsts in Aviation, Infoplease;, Accessed 6 June 2010.
  2. On This Day 19th October 1954 Metal fatigue caused Comet crashes, Barcelonareporter; fatigue_caused_comet_crashes/, Accessed 6 June 2010.
  3. Oil, gas still energy essentials, Mackubin Owens, Boston Herald, Page 17, 18 May 2010.
  4. It would be riskier to cease offshore drilling, Mackubin T. Owens, Boston Herald, Page 21, 4 May 2010.
  5. Slick Performance, Christopher Helman, Forbes Magazine, Pages 28-30, 7 June 2010.


  14 June 2010 {Article 83; Whatever_18}    
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