Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 25, 2010

Why science matters

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Christopher Bellavita on May 25, 2010

If Deep Horizon happened on CSI, NCIS or any other related puzzle show, we would know by now precisely how many barrels or gallons or whatever measure you want of oil are flooding from the bottom of the Gulf.

But Deep Horizon is not happening on TV, the Internet, Twitter or Facebook.  It is happening within 615,000 square miles of a sea governed by discomforting laws of physical reality.

Here is slightly more than 2 minutes of candor from President Obama’s science advisor. (Thanks, Arnold)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 25, 2010 @ 6:33 am

Actually I found this presentation by the Science Advisor troubling. It explains in great and interesting detail why it is difficult to measure the flow. Did he get this analysis from inside or outside the government?

But the main reason is that the scientific method developed in post-Renaissance Europe and furthered by certain individuals such as Issac Newton (called then “natural philosophy”) relies on the constant testing of assumptions and premises and theorems and revising as the passage of time and repetition of results allows their verification. Clearly no science was ever applied to undersea oil spill issues. It was assumed to be safe by all and now we see that assumption has failed. So what is the new range of assumptions and in particular the worst case?

Here is my assumption for operations in the Gulf? First, there will be no real diminishment of the oil flow this year-yes I mean the entirety of the remainder of 2010! Second, the failure to mobilize national resources for the response will result in the US being rapidly reduced from a major power to the status of the third world as the world begins to comprehend that like the Soviet Union successor the Russian Republic our nuclear weapons and conventional forces are the only remaining capability of a former superpower. Third, by Labor Day Wall Street will have realized that the BP spill is a much larger event than the Lehman Bros. failure in 2008 and there is no real hedge against the spoilage of natural resources and the economy by this event. Note that so far no analysis of Treasury or the FED of this event has been conducted or if conducted made public! My guess is the NOCs (National Oil Companies which are 90% of world reserve owners) and the major oil companies now understand and have documented the impact and strategy for this event on their survival and future in production and distribution of oil and gas. Fourth, the largest mid-term losses in US history for the party in the White House is about to occur. But oddly the Republicans will also suffer. It is now clear the Bobby Jindal gets the issue here and could be on the ticket for some party in 2012. Hey remember the who lost CHINA discussion under McCarthy, the “which” [witch] hunt here will be the largest in US history as “who lost the Gulf” will be the rallying cry for ending the current Washington scene where government has been rendered totally incapable of action by the lobbyists. Why, because the lobbying by the oil and gas industry achieved its aim! Exploitation of the commons for private gain without adequate regulation. Also finally, the failure of the science community and academic community on this issue will reveal that the profit making colleges and universities (now over 40% of all colleges and universities) exist on student loans by Uncle Sugar and don’t do science or engineering or R&D or basic research. Just as the greatest fear of the founding fathers who were thoughtful, our democracy (republic) has allowed a corrupt system (let’s start with the Office of Government Ethics) to perpetuate exactly those failures that make governance impossible. Obama won in what will soon be viewed as a Pyhrric [sic] victory. Perhaps I am wrong and hoping so.

Comment by Dan O'Conor

May 25, 2010 @ 10:54 am

What one would hope to hear; “I don’t know…and here’s why.” While the question appears to be clear, cogent, and concise the answer, is somewhat a non answer. We wait until 1:33 to hear they do not know. True, we learn about a variety of measurement methods and challenges they face, but answers are hard to come by. I don’t think we should be surprised though. It’s a tough subject.

There are a host of dilemmas here; I recently read that upwards of 93% of our energy requirements are met with Petroleum. We import 2/3 of our oil. And, by energy experts; no new coal burning generators, oil refineries, and Nuclear Power Plants have been built in years. It is beyond highly unlikely that we will become energy independent as we’ve been “trying” to do so since the early 1970’s.

Alternative fuels; wind, solar, biomass, etc are basically inconsequential and without the huge incentives needed to use them, they are at best boutique technologies. So the bottom line is we need oil and a lot of it.

The digital age requires more electrons. Everything we do requires more energy. We have 5% of the world’s population and consume 25% of the energy. So we need oil.

The dilemma comes from the risk/reward ratio of finding it, getting it, and doing it safely. There is immense challenge bringing liquid or better defined, plasma held under pressure up a mile long series of pipes through the sea and doing it safely. On the one hand I want to imagine energy companies are doing everything in their power to study and identify potential systemic and catastrophic problems.

On the other hand, the cynic in me, based in no small part of watching this and other scenarios play out, paints a picture of risk mitigation and cost benefit analysis as the primary driver.

BP is not going to lose money on this; we are. To date, it’s estimated that BP’s clean up costs are currently at $700Million +/- . . . about 6 days of profits… The ripple effect will also start having its amplifying effect. Drilling or better stated, high risk drilling will cease; in California, in Brazil, in the Gulf of Mexico.

So while the explanation by the honorable Mr. Holdren was accurate I found it to be perhaps scientifically evasive… and it may have appeared that way simply do to the transition from what appears to be a very complex problem to chaos.

So always circling back to our HS perspective; do we have an energy vulnerability? Maybe. Do we have a National vulnerability? ABSOLUTELY. North Korea, Iran, Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, Iraq are all in play. Our debt and Europe’s tight rope walk are clearly stressors. How long before we see Spain or other European countries mimic Greece? What are the State, Regional, and National economic implications?

We are trying to fight our way out of a recession and we now lay this at the door step. I wonder out loud is it our Federal fiscal situation that prevents a more robust response or simply trying to hold a company accountable?

Enough with the extreme right and left rhetoric. This is not a political problem; it’s an American problem.

So is Homeland Security still simply about terrorism?

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 25, 2010 @ 11:02 am

Actually since 1980 most new generation plants in US use natural gas. Even some old coal fired plants have been converted.

Most of this is driven not by cheap gas but by environmental considerations.

Comment by Graham Westwood

May 25, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

It seems to me that this is another predictable surprise. What is keeping the west, the US especially, from embarking on the biggest 12 step oilaholics anonymous program in history? The younger people would be all for this and boomers often become more idealistic as they age. I personally know of few people in our part of the world that would not support getting off oil with their hearts and wallets.

I think that without a concerted effort to break the addiction, our security is at risk.

Comment by J Donnelly

May 25, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

I wish it were CSI or NCIS then this disaster would be over in an hour and the bad guys in jail. Maybe i is time to ask the screenwriters for a solution. They certainly can’t do any worse. :)

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 25, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

I can’t help but wonder whether the problem is partly that we expect science to have all the answers. David Brooks’ column today highlighted the competing Enlightenment perspectives on change proffered by French and British philosophers in the 18th century.

How we approach change in general says a lot about what we expect of leaders in times of crises. Judging by the expectations of certainty attached to the Deepwater Horizon approval process and the response to its demise, I think it’s safe to say we prefer to think of the world as neat, tidy, orderly and ultimately within if not under our control. The evidence before our eyes suggests otherwise.

At the risk of being accused of engaging in circular reasoning, I would go so far as to suggest that our unwillingness (as opposed to our inability) to acknowledge the unknowableness of certain things is the best evidence of the incorrectness of this perspective.

In the absence of certainty about how much oil was escaping, how the blown well would be sealed, when the flow would be stopped, and how extensive and persistent the impacts on the gulf ecosystem would be, it should have been clear that people needed to be reassured that those responsible for the disaster were not being relied upon to remedy it. Instead, we have focused on reassuring people that the remedy is the responsibility of the same people who created the problem. The conflicting statements coming from the administration about the management of the disaster seem only to have only compounded these concerns.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 26, 2010 @ 5:23 am

As Mark outlines, reality is often complex and can be paradoxical.

My current take on the reality in the Gulf is that our best hope of resolution will, indeed, emerge from the same people who created the problem.

As I consider a wider array of problems — for example Darfur, the credit crisis, global warming (I could go on)– my solutions often end up in the same place, depending on the culprits to be a big part of the clean-up.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 26, 2010 @ 11:19 am

Phil, I tend to agree that partnerships and collaboration are required to resolve crises of this sort. The word crisis is important in this context, though, because it suggests a loss of confidence in leaders.

Disasters may disrupt our sense of place and produce genuine loss as well as a shared sense of loss. But crises involve something more. The people in society to whom we turn for direction and guidance when things have gone wrong are no longer trusted to get us out of the mess we find ourselves in.

In the midst of a genuine crisis, we have not yet arrived at a point where we see their failures as our own or an extension of our human condition. Rather, we see their inability to control the situation as evidence of deeper moral failings. As such, it is incumbent upon leaders to recognize not only when they must step up, but also when they should step aside.

Resolving crises and restoring confidence usually requires people to regain a sense of confidence in the correspondence between leaders’ intentions and their actions. Consistency makes a big difference, especially when the outcome remains uncertain or undefined.

It is not inconsistent to say “we don’t know or we can’t know.” But when this is the case, leaders need to show the steps they are taking to fill their knowledge gaps.

In this instance, people have said, “we don’t need to know,” but that has been interpreted by others as “we don’t want to know.” As such, it is easy to see how this looks more like evasion than cooperation. Thus, the crisis continues.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 26, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

When faced with a difficult situation, as a small boy I was taught to begin by being self-critical. Had I contributed to the problem or complicated the solution? If so, I was to do everything possible to stop, take responsibility, and apologize.

Then I was encouraged to look at how others might be trying to resolve the situation. How might I contribute? How could I support those trying to be helpful? This might, if appropriate, include suggesting or initiating an alternative option. But mostly it was focused on pitching in as positively and fully as possible.

If no one had yet started to take action, I was taught to take it upon myself to do what I could and involve others as appropriate.

Lead, follow, or get out of the way, you might say.

As a small boy I was taught — by words and example — to not worry about accountability until the problem had been resolved. And after resolution, if others were to be held accountable I was encouraged to apply the Golden Rule.

This ethic for effective problem-solving has always served me pretty well… even as I have grown older and the problems have become more complicated.

But somehow by the time a problem has become a headline this ethic seems to be shattered beyond redemption.

I’m not sure if the relevance of this to prior comments will be readily apparent. But, if you recognize the connection, I would certainly value thoughts as to where and how this ethic breaks down on the “big stories.”

Comment by Arnold Bogis

May 26, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

Mr. O’Conor,

In defense of Dr. Holdren, I would say his answer was also rather clear, cogent, and concise. The question was “Why don’t we know how much oil is coming out of the Deep Water Horizon well?” And John begins to answer, “A number of reasons…” and then spells out those reasons.

At the 1:33 mark you hear him say they do not know how much oil is coming out due to all the reasons he just explained. But the question put to him, and I believe answered quite candidly, was why don’t they know.

Which points to an important part of this candor topic. While we should require are leaders to be candid in such matters, as citizens we must also expect that there will be matters where definitive knowledge or solution is just not possible. Not knowing how much oil is spilling into the Gulf does not automatically mean there is a BP-led and Administration-supported conspiracy to hide the truth. The federal government taking control of the situation could very well mean delays and not faster action on shutting it off. It is possible that a terrorist attack might not be detected before it happens, and that will have nothing to do with the ideology of the party in power.

Looking back at the previous comments, this touches on what Mark brought up about the unknowable. Though I side with Philip that sometimes those responsible are the best possible solution option.

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