Thursday, December 16, 2010

Collapse of Infrastructure

There is an exceptionally good front page article in the Wall Street Journal by Ben Casselman:  Aging Oil Rigs, Pipelines Expose Gulf to Accidents today.
Some Excerpts:
The deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in April set off a fierce battle over deep-sea oil drilling aboard huge, state-of-the art vessels. But that debate has largely ignored what many experts say could be a bigger threat: The troubled state of offshore infrastructure that remains in place long after wells are drilled...
Much of that infrastructure is decades old. Roughly half of the Gulf's more than 3,000 production platforms are 20 years old or more, and a third date back to the 1970s or earlier, long before the development of modern construction standards. More than half have been operating longer than their designers intended, according to federal regulators.
In 2009 there were 133 fires aboard Gulf rigs, 10 oil spills of more than 50 barrels and 17 releases of natural gas that forced facilities to shut down, according to government data. This past April, two weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, an engine-room fire on a shallow-water rig off Louisiana was blamed on a 33-year-old generator that was "prone to failure due to the engine's service life," according to a federal investigation
The extent of the problem was highlighted after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita barreled through the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, leaving behind a tangle of twisted pipelines, toppled platforms and flooded refineries.... Of the 116 fixed platforms destroyed by Katrina and Rita, half were built in the 1960s or earlier and more than 70% were built before 1980.
A 2007 attempt by federal regulators to impose tougher rules for maintaining offshore pipelines was abandoned after opposition from industry groups. In a 232-page rebuttal of the proposed rules, the Offshore Operators Committee argued they were time-consuming, expensive and unnecessary, and questioned the authority of the regulatory agency, the Minerals Management Service, to impose them.
Now the obvious reference here would be to peak oil.  Obviously there is some relevance to that problem.  But a the primary focus here is our inability to maintain infrastructure. 
The inability to maintain our oil transport infrastructure is very much like our inability to repair bridges.  The average American bridge is 48 years old, and 1/4th of them need repair.  The total price tag was estimated at $140 Billion.  Givin that government building project estimates are notoriously optimistic that number could probably be doubled.  And the list can be extended (pdf) to all sorts of projets:  The 50%+ of our gas transmission lines that were installed prior to 1970, the New Orleans Canal Locks, Mississippi River dredging, Alaskan Way Viaduct, the leaky Atlanta water system, Herbert Hoover Dike Wall that holds back Lake Okeechobee, Sacremento Water Levees, Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky....
One challenge lies in ownership issues. In a book about the infrastructure crisis, Seeds of Disaster, Roots of Response,  Michel-Kerjan points out that less than 20% of the nation's infrastructure is publicly owned. "Conventional wisdom tells you that these systems are the responsibility of the government," he says, "but in America at least, about 80% to 85% is run or operated by the private sector." The 2.5 million miles of pipeline that snake throughout America's cities, for example, are operated by about 3,000 different companies.
Wharton Professor of Public Policy and Management, Howard Kunreuther,  points out that Companies focused on the short term may tend to squeeze profit out of existing systems rather than finance system-wide upgrades. Most people suffer from an "incredible myopia" when it comes to planning for the long term or worst-case scenarios, he notes. When things are "out of sight, out of mind," the tendency is to ignore the problem until a crisis hits.
"There's a general lesson from pipeline explosions or any kind of catastrophic event: When the event occurs, everyone pays great attention ... but then [the problem] disappears."  For private companies, there is also a rational component to favoring periodic maintenance over system-wide upgrades.  Funneling money into upgrading an entire system could strain business in the short term if competitors aren't making the same capital-intensive investments.
To put this within Joseph Tainter terms:  the maintenance costs of our ever increasing complex society are eating up any surplus needed to allow the growth to continue.  Therefore, you must either stop the growth, or start (slowly) cannibalizing your infrastructure.
In summation: We are falling apart.

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