Maybe the Gulf of Mexico Needs a Little Help from Its Friends

My dad always said that if you couldn't help solve a problem, the least you could do was get out of the way of the people who were working on it. That's why I have deliberately not given voice to my feelings, opinions, off-the-cuff comments and snotty remarks about The Situation in the Gulf of Mexico. I'm sure if BP could have fixed it by now, they would have.

However, a couple of pieces of email have crossed my desk today regarding The Situation that I thought I'd share.

The first one comes from our own columnist Bela Liptak. Here's someone who can offer some intelligent insight into what's possible in terms of a fix. What follows is from an email he sent me this morning.

"Also, you probably do not know that my son reports to The New York Times on the Supreme Court and sitting next to him in the Washington office of the Times is John Broader who reports to the paper on the White House. Some time ago John asked me to comment on the BP oil developments from a process control point of view. This I have been doing and below you can read my last letter.
THE PROBLEMS WITH THE DOME: Besides being only a temporary solution and besides requiring a lot of continuously applied force to hold it down, the 6.6" diameter riser is too small to carry 20,000 barrels of oil per day, not to mention that both the dome and its riser will be gone when the hurricane season starts.
THE SOLUTION: Instead of mud, golf balls or shards of rubber, use much heavier, larger and irregular metallic parts, which can not experience flow reversal, because they interlink, grapple, cling together and the more they are pushed by the oil, the firmer plug they create. (They behave like the umbrella that opens when pushed from below). Naturally, if the 21" riser pipe is also pinched after the metallic parts are introduced the constricted pipe not only cuts down the flow, but also holds the plug. If the pipe is too brittle for being clipped by the submarine robots, it can be drilled to insert large holding rods behind the plug. This solution can be implemented in a couple of days, it is a permanent seal and is one that is unaffected by hurricanes.
I am not surprised at BP"s performance, after all they were incorrect saying that poly-phase oil flow cannot be measured (see Chapter 2.17 in my handbook), that the blow-off preventer does not need to be tested daily (closing it to 25%-50%) when in fact it is common practice with all critical shut-off valves, or that wireless dead man switches are not needed. No, I am not surprised about that. What I am surprised about is that Drs. Steven Chu and Carol Burner went along with such incompetence and still do."

A bit later, I got the following press release from a company called ARM Insight out in Oregon. It has developed a website to enable all of us to put our collective minds together to come up with ideas for fixing the GoM problem. Here's part of the release:

BP Oil Spill Rescue:  Online Suggestion Platform Seeks New Approaches
-  Hopes Crowdsourcing Will Find Solution to BP Spill
Portland, OR  June 2, 2010 –  An Oregon technology company launched a website today to capture suggestions of the world's best and brightest on innovative solutions for stopping BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has reportedly received 10,000 phone calls and 60,000 emails offering solutions since last month's disaster. The website is intended as a vehicle to organize these ideas, through the use of "crowdsourcing," to encourage new thinking and promote collaboration among interested people around the world. Crowdsourcing refers to the concept that the wisdom of crowds, if harnessed, can usually provide the best answer (think the "Audience" lifeline in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire").
"We believe the answer to capping the oil spill may emerge through the collaborative efforts of disparate individuals worldwide, from every-day tinkerers to professional scientists in the farthest corners of the world," said Dan Afrasiabi, president of Portland's ARM Insight.  "Technology allows us to invite people with different talents and ideas to jump in to this collaborative forum where every idea is welcomed."
The site has an innovative strategy itself. Idea contributors, whether an innovative farmer in Omaha, an engineering visionary in Russia, or perhaps a high school physics teacher in Brazil, can post their ideas and all site visitors can vote for their favorite idea. The most innovative ideas then quickly rise to the top of the list because they have the most votes. Dan Afrasiabi hopes BP experts will monitor the website for the best and most innovative ideas.
“We believe that complex problems require revolutionary solutions” said Afrasiabi. “Few problems require the urgent cooperation of global brain-power in the way the oil spill crisis does. Our hope is to quickly uncover the solution to this problem and at the same time produce a wealth of ideas to prevent or minimize the effect of future accidents which are likely to occur as the global hunt for deep water sources of energy continues.”
Afrasiabi invites everyone with an idea to submit a proposal or who simply wants to vote on the ideas presented by others to visit"  

Well, I don't know about voting for the most popular idea as the best way to solve the problem. "Most popular" and "best" aren't exactly the same thing. On the other hand, nothing BP has tried so far has worked, so why not?

BTW, I've looked up the site and it is, apparently, legitimate. There are already several pages of suggestions. The most popular so far is "Fit a wider pipe over the current one."

Looking at the suggestions, I'm thinking they might be a better gage of general frustration and anger than solid technical solutions. "Bomb it," "Drop a big-ass rock on it," and "Stuff it with 538 congressmen and senators." are among the helpful hints.  (That last one really resonates with me.)

On the other hand, if you really do have what you think is a workable idea, why not pay the site a visit and post it? Can't hurt. Might help. And right now, the GoM needs all the help it can get.