Engineering in an Age of Limits

Discusses the role of engineers as society enters an Age of Limits — particularly with oil supplies.

Monthly Archives: March 2015

Engineering in an Age of Limits: Welcome

Hubbert Curve

The Hubbert Curve (1956)

Welcome to our blog Engineering in an Age of Limits. This blog is part of a group that are grouped under the The PSM Report. Posts to date include:


The “limits” that we refer to fall into three broad categories:

  1. Resources — of which oil is the most obvious and most critical.
  2. Environmental — carbon dioxide in the atmosphere receives the most attention but there are many other environmental issues such as ocean acidification and soil depletion.
  3. Money — the most abstract, yet maybe the most urgent of the limits.

Engineers had much to do with the creation of the industrial revolution (and the eventual depletion of oil reserves). And, as we move into the Age of Limits engineers will have both an opportunity and a responsibility to help create a new society and economic structure. The posts here will discuss how this might be done.


engineering-age-limitsWe are working on a book to do with Engineering in an Age of Limits.





The posts will generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Explanations of Peak Oil basics such as the Hubbert Curve and ERoEI. These posts will be written for engineers, so they will not hold back on technical and mathematical concepts.
  2. Thoughts as to how society may change in the coming decades as oil resources deplete.
  3. The challenges and opportunities that engineers will face during those decades.

We have started a new series of posts that may become the basis of a book on the topic. The theme that threads through the posts is:

Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented engineers.
What will a post-oil society invent?

The current posts in this series are:

  1. Reverse Engineering
  2. Peak Forests
  3. The Mechanical World View
  4. Four Strands
  5. A Journey Part 1— Twilight
  6. A Journey Part 2 Hubbert
  7. A Journey Part 3 — A Predicament
  8. A Journey Part 4 — Inconvenient Truths
  9. A Journey Part 5 — No Bankable Projects
  10. Denying Blackbeard — Part 1
  11. Denying Blackbeard — Part 2
  12. If wishes were horses . . .
  13. Renaissance Man and Climate Change

Older posts that discuss issues to do with the Age of Limits include the following:

Reference Material

Much excellent research on the topic of the Age of Limits has of course already been published, so this blog will include many references. As a starter, we have found the following sites to be invaluable:


The One-Legged Stool


We are currently writing a series of posts to do with systems analysis and how process safety expertise can help contribute to an understanding of such systems. The first two posts in this series are:

  • APEC Blue which discussed the ignored, yet very real, costs of externalities; and
  • The Cloud which pointed out that externalities go beyond simple environmental issues, and that, sooner or later, we — all of us — will have to pay for them.

The background to this series is that we have entered an Age of Limits (economic, energy and environmental). Like it or not our world is going to get much simpler. It behooves those of us who are aware of this wrenching change to get out ahead of the curve. (An excellent introduction to these three topics is provided by Chris Martenson in his ‘Crash Course’. It consists of 26 presentations, each of which lasts for ten minutes. Time spent listening and watching these presentations is time very well spent.) And, I would like to think that that those trained in process safety management already have a good grasp of systems thinking.

In the previous paragraph I used the phrase ‘Like it or not’. Our world is going to get simpler. We can deny the changes that are taking place; we can believe that “they” (whoever “they” are) will come up with something; or we can just hope for the best. None of these reactions make any difference: “Nature bats last”. Moreover, simplification is not going to be pretty — a topic we will discuss in future posts. But it would be irresponsible to deny the existence of the predicament in which we find ourselves. We need to take action — time is not on our side.

Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

In previous posts I have cited the works of John Michael Greer. Since the year 2006 he has been writing a remarkable and very successful weekly blog entitled The Archdruid Report in which he clearly spells out the dilemmas that we face. In one of his posts he reports that, when speaking at one conference, he spontaneously came up with the phrase, “Collapse Now and Beat the Rush”. It is useful to provide the context in which he made the remark.

One of my presentations to that conference was a talk entitled “How Civilizations Fall;” longtime readers of this blog will know from the title that what I was talking about that afternoon was the theory of catabolic collapse, which outlines the way that human societies on the way down cannibalize their own infrastructure, maintaining themselves for the present by denying themselves a future.  I finished talking about catabolic collapse and started fielding questions, of which there were plenty, and somewhere in the conversation that followed one of the other participants made a comment. I don’t even remember the exact words, but it was something like, “So what you’re saying is that what we need to do, individually, is to go through collapse right away.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Collapse now, and avoid the rush.”

Outside of that conversation, I doubt I would have thought of the phrase at all. By the end of the conference, though, it was on the lips of a good many of the attendees, and for good reason: I can’t think of a better way to sum up the work ahead of us right now, as industrial society lurches down the far side of its trajectory through time.

In other words, society as we know it — including the energy and process industries — is going to collapse (or at least change radically, whether we like it or not) and it us up to use to take charge of our destinies.

Greer’s theory to do with ‘catabolic collapse’ is fascinating and deserves a thorough treatment in future posts in this blog series. But Greer and most of his readers are not, like most of the readers here, engineers or process safety specialists. His audience tends to focus on how individuals can respond to the dilemmas that we face or how political and social systems need to change. The challenge that faces those of us who work in industry  is how to simplify industrial processes while maintaining our standards of safety and environmental responsibility.

Which brings us to Trevor Kletz and his one-legged stool.

The One-Legged Stool

I haveKletz-Trevor-1 had occasion on a number of times to refer to Trevor Kletz and his ability to tell stories (see my post That would be telling.) One of his better known stories was to do with the one-legged stool.

Early in the 20th century a factory in England manufactured the dangerous explosive nitro-glycerine. The worker in charge of this process (the rather stout gentleman shown in the picture at the head of this post) was allowed to sit down but only on a one-legged stool. Hence if he dozed off he would fall and wake up. (Further information to do with this primitive, yet effective safety technique is provided at the Wat Tyler Country Park site.) The following is a quotation from that site.

Highly unstable nitro-glycerine was the main ingredient of explosives made at the Pitsea factory. Making nitro-glycerine was very dangerous. Concentrated acids were mixed with glycerine in huge vats. If too much glycerine was added too quickly to the mixture, it would become unstable, and a large valve would have to be opened to quickly dump the whole batch into a large vat of water. Failure to do this quickly could have led to a catastrophic explosion.

Mostly, though it was very dull. The operator would sit at the mixing machine for long hours just looking at the dials to make sure the machine was working OK, and there was a good chance they could fall asleep on the job. A one-legged stool made sure they had to perch to stay awake. At Pitsea it seems this was very effective, because in all the years the factory operated they never once had to dump the Nitro-Glycerine mixture.

Strapping-Gauge-1It might be thought that the time and place of this example is so distant as to be not pertinent to modern industry. But I recall, early in my career, working at chemical plants in south-east Texas and in Europe where the clients made large quantities of ethylene oxide (EO) — a chemical that is both toxic and highly flammable. EO was stored in a large intermediate tanks (I would say at least 15 meters tall) that had absolutely no instrumentation at all — none, zippo. The only way of measuring the level was with a manual strapping gauge. To modern eyes this situation sounds extraordinarily hazardous, yet it worked — in many years of operation neither facility had a spill or any other type of incident to do with intermediate tanks.

But the modern safety engineer could not live with such a situation, not least because it probably contravenes some industry standard or regulation. So he or she would carry out lengthy and expensive “studies” and determine that “something must be done” — even though there really isn’t a problem to be solved. The final recommendation will be that a sophisticated level control system be installed, backed up with a high-integrity Safety Instrumentation System.

This new system may or may not make the operation of the tank more safe but it will most certainly increase capital and maintenance costs by orders of magnitude. And, more important, a complex system such as this is vulnerable to the Law of Unintended Consequences. If something can break it will. But with the one-legged stool, all that can break is the leg of the stool itself, and that can be fixed in no time flat.

The increased complexity of the solution to the “Nitro-Glycerine (non-) problem” shows up in the elements of process safety.

  • Process Safety Information.
    Stool: Very little information needed and none of it needs to be written down; stools have been in used for millennia; we know how they work and what they do.
    Instrumentation: Extensive; subject to error; out of date almost immediately; expensive to record and keep up to date.
  • Operating Procedures
    : Short — keep an eye on the level and temperature and level in the vessel; turn one valve if things go awry.
    Instrumentation: Extensive; complex; expensive.
  • Maintenance
    : Negligible – the workshop can fix any problems in minutes.
    Instrumentation: Complex, subject to error and vulnerable to lack of skilled personnel; expensive.
  • Prestartup Review
    Stool: Sit on it, the test is complete in seconds.
    Instrumentation: Lengthy, needs checklists; leads to acrimonious meetings; expensive,

Of course, the above is written somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But the attractiveness of simple solutions cannot be denied yet it invariably avoided.

Back to Trevor — he and his colleagues recognized the value and elegance of simplicity. They made it the fifth leg of the stool of Inherent Safety.

  1. Eliminate
  2. Minimize
  3. Substitute
  4. Moderate
  5. Simplify

But there is a profound difference between what Trevor propounded and what we are discussing in this blog series.

In Trevor’s day simplification was a choice. In the Age of Limits simplification is going to happen — like it or not. The challenge that we are faced with is not “How do we make our processes simpler?” but “Given that our processes are going to become simpler how do we manage this transition and still maintain our standards of safety and environmental performance?”

The Cloud

The Cloud
This post is a continuation in the discussion to do with externalities — the costs of industrial activities that are borne by society and ecosystems as a whole; costs for which no one is responsible for addressing directly and which are not directly borne by the activity that created them. In this series we suggest that process safety professionals, many of whom have a good grasp of systems analysis, can make a useful contribution in addressing these issues.

It may be thought that the “virtual world” in which we live reduces our externalities. However, as this post to do with “The Cloud” shows, these virtual systems are very physical, they require resources and they impact our world’s ecosystems.

In our last post — APEC Blue — to do with engineering in an Age of Limits we discussed the topic of “externalities”, the costs associated with all human activities that are not charged to that activity directly but that are dumped on society and on the world’s ecosystems. We will keep on raising this topic in future posts because it is so integral to the systems thinking — an area in which process safety professionals can provide leadership. The title of that post referred to the blue skies that “magically” appeared during the few days that the international APEC Conference was being held in Beijing. In order to cut back on air pollution heavy industry in the area was shut down and motor traffic was severely restricted. Once the conference was finished industry and traffic returned to normal and the people returned to their air masks.

The following is from a newspaper report published after the conference.

Beijing issued its first yellow pollution alert since the Apec summit when the capital was choked in thick smog today.

The Air Quality Index reading for Beijing was 316 – meaning the air quality was “heavily polluted”. The reading from the US embassy stood at 346.

The pictures illustrate the transformation to Business as Usual

Beijing after APEC

Air quality Beijing during and after the APEC Conference in December 2014

But now it appears as if an increasing number of Beijing citizens are wondering why they ‘APEC Blue’ cannot be a permanent part of their lives. These people understand that there is a cost associated with externalities.

The basic idea behind externalities, sometimes referred to as the “Tragedy of the Commons”, is that our financial and management systems do not include all the costs associated with our activities. In the case of air pollution in China the owners of the factories that make steel and chemicals account for the direct costs associated with their business (labor, raw materials, electricity, and so on) but they do not consider the costs associated with the pollution that they produce. For example, if a citizen has to purchase an air mask she cannot charge the cost of that mask to the factory owners in their area. If fishermen lose their livelihood because the rivers are polluted then they have to bear that cost.

I must stress that I am not singling out China as being a special case of ignoring externalities. The true situation is more subtle. Companies in Europe and the north America are required to address at least some of the costs of their externalities in the form of relatively strict environmental rules. One “solution” to the cost of meeting these rules is to transfer manufacturing activities to parts of the world where the rules are not so stringent. But that means that, if someone in Europe or the United States purchases a product made in China then that person is, to some extent, responsible for the air pollution created in making that product.

The second example of externalities that I gave last week was to do with exhaust emissions — all vehicles, including “green” electric cars and including the car I personally drive, dump CO2 and other gases into the atmosphere. The fact that those gases are slowly but surely messing up the planet is someone else’s problem — it’s an externality. Once the exhaust gases have left the end of my tail pipe they have “gone away”. We prefer not to think about the meaning of the word “away”.

Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material

Another example of dumping our problems into externalities cropped up last week. In response to the collapse in oil prices those drilling for oil in North Dakota are proposing that the safe limit for radioactive waste be increased by a  factor of ten. This proposal is based on “the absolutely best science available”, which makes one wonder what type of science they were using when oil prices were $110 per barrel. In other words, in order to minimize short-term private losses these businesses proposed to create an externality of increased cancer risks among the citizens of North Dakota. (The topic of NORM — Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials — is discussed in Chapter 7 of Plant Design and Operations and in out post on the same topic)

This discussion to do with externalities was prompted by John Michael Greer who writes at his blog The Archdruid Report. He summarizes the issues to do with externalities as follows:

a) Every increase in technological complexity tends also to increase the opportunities for externalizing the costs of economic activity;

b) Market forces make the externalization of costs mandatory rather than optional, since economic actors that fail to externalize costs will tend to be outcompeted by those that do;

c) In a market economy, as all economic actors attempt to externalize as many costs as possible, externalized costs will tend to be passed on preferentially and progressively to whole systems such as the economy, society, and the biosphere, which provide necessary support for economic activity but have no voice in economic decisions;

d) Given unlimited increases in technological complexity, there is no necessary limit to the loading of externalized costs onto whole systems short of systemic collapse;

e) Unlimited increases in technological complexity in a market economy thus necessarily lead to the progressive degradation of the whole systems that support economic activity;

f) Technological progress in a market economy is therefore self-terminating, and ends in collapse.

These six points open up a lot of areas for discussion; I will attempt to tackle some of them in future posts. I have highlighted the third item for consideration in this week’s post. What Greer means is that the people who create the externalities (steel producers in China, drillers in North Dakota, banks everywhere, automobile drivers everywhere) have a strong incentive to dump the problems that they create. But the “environment” (where that word is used in the broadest sense) has very little voice in the final decision. And everyone will have to make a payment eventually — including those who created the externalities. The piper must be paid.

The costs of externalities are real, even though they do not appear on anyone’s income statement. Those costs are paid by us all, including those who created the externalities. If the process of creating unaccounted for externalities is allowed to continue indefinitely the system will collapse.

It should be stressed that externalities are not just environmental problems. For example, government subsidies are an externality. If a business needs a government subsidy in order to be “profitable” then that business is relying on an externality: a cost that it is not paying for directly. It is being supported by society as a whole. And if the government in question has to borrow the money to pay the subsidy then those costs are being borne by our children and grand children.

Presalt Oil

Presalt Oil

Externalization covers resource issues also. For example, as we use up the easy to extract oil from fields such as Al Ghawar in Saudi Arabia and the Alaska North Slope we are forced to look for oil in more challenging — and hence more expensive — locations such as ultra-deepwater pre-salt formations, bitumen sands and shale. The costs associated with these efforts are passed on to society as a whole in the form of higher prices for a commodity that used to be quite cheap. (The same can be said for farmers who are taking water out of the ground faster than it is being replaced.)

The chart below shows that, over the last ten years, the price of oil has risen at about 6-8% per annum — well in excess of the growth rates of economies or of most people’s paychecks. (As time permits I may write a post discussing some of the factors surrounding the recent drop in the price of oil and what caused it. A key point is that, although the price of oil that has already been discovered has fallen, the cost of finding and extracting the next incremental barrel continues to rise – see our post Nine Pounds of Gold.)

Price of Oil

We also need to recognize that externalities can be subtle — even invisible. For example, I write this post sitting quietly in an air-conditioned room with just a computer, monitor, keyboard and wireless connection to the Internet. No smokestacks, no smog, no polluted rivers. I am in a cloud.

The Computing Cloud

The Cloud

Yet this apparently simple technology is supported by an enormous range of industrial facilities, including power plants (coal, gas, nuclear), server farms, container ships  and rare earth mining. Hence my writing of this blog is creating all kinds externalities that are invisible to me. For example, the picture below shows the nearly-complete server facility (along with the associated solar panel farm) built by Apple in North Carolina to provide its cloud services. It is obvious from this picture that the cloud is not some wispy abstraction; it is very real, very physical, very large and it creates many externalities.

Apple Computing Center - North Carolina

The Cloud

This Forbes article discusses some of the other hidden costs associated with the cloud. It states,

Not only is the physical cloud invisible to most of us, it creates costs that may be invisible to the companies that rely on it. CIOs . . . are concerned about a range of hidden costs that may only surface after things are up and running — such as poor performance, or issues with service availability. What happens when the service runs slow, and transactions back up? What happens when end-user customers get frustrated at slow Website performance?

This comment spoke to me. I am a gardener. Last year I spent quite a bit of time filling out an order form at a certain seed company’s web-based catalog. After I had finished entering my order the web page froze up. I called the company’s telephone number but the person who answered the phone was trained only on how to fill orders — he had no idea as to how to handle a call to do with a frozen web site. So I hung up, abandoned the web site and placed my order with a competing company; it is unlikely that I will ever bother with the first company again.

There are two points to this simple story.

  1. By outsourcing/externalizing its business to “the cloud” the company lost a customer. They may have thought that their efficiency had increased — in fact it had crashed to zero.
  2. The managers never knew that they had had a problem. Far from improving communications with their customers externalization had destroyed communications.

If we are to come to terms with the many problems that we face, we badly need to understand systems thinking. And that is where process safety professionals can help.

How we do this is, of course, a wide-open question. But we can probably start by considering the three ‘E’s when working on a project or when trying to analyze a system. The three ‘E’s, which are well described by Chris Martenson, are:

  1. The Economy;
  2. Energy; and
  3. The Environment

Martenson builds on these three ‘E’s to say,

The story that I am going to weave for you cuts across all three “E”s and will make the claim that our very economic system is badly out of step with reality and will suffer severe instability and possibly collapse as a result.

It is fair to say that this particular constellation of issues, problems if you will, has never been faced before at these levels. Not in your country’s history. And not even in human history – at least, not on such a global scale.

Whether you find this terrifying or exhilarating is simply a matter of your mindset.

What he does not say is that any attempt to resolve these apparently intractable problems is going to require systems thinking.


Extremely high pollution levels in China

In this week’s Archdruid Report — The Externality Trap, or, How Progress Commits Suicide — one of the commenters, “Stein L”, had the following to say about the Chinese economic miracle.

When hosting the APEC summit in Beijing, Chinese authorities did something they’ve apparently later come to regret. They instituted a ban on manufacturing activity and motoring inside a large radius circle around Beijing, in order to reduce air pollution.

During the conference, the skies above the city were blue, something people hadn’t seen for a long time. The phenomenon was so astonishing that it earned a nick name: APEC Blue. It also raised a clamor for something to be done about the externalities of the Chinese economic “miracle.” APEC Blue brought the cost home to those affected.

We fixate on isolated benefits of technological progress, and fail to see the larger picture. . . The citizens of Beijing had come to see air pollution as something natural, because they so rarely saw a clear blue sky. . . The “smell of money” made them blind to what they were miring themselves in.

The writer is referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that was held in Beijing in 2014. By shutting down heavy industry and most road vehicles Beijing’s air was transformed from this,


to this.


Most readers probably expect me, at this point, to start discussing environmental issues. And certainly it is becoming increasingly evident that the Chinese authorities are going to have to get to grips with their dreadful pollution problems — which include not just foul air but soil loss and the contamination of fresh water.

But there is a larger point here, one that applies to all of us, and that is to do with the topic of “externalities”. The companies in China that manufacture steel and other industrial goods dump their pollution on to society as a whole — they do not have to include those costs in their financial statements. Yet these costs, sometimes alluded to as “The Tragedy of the Commons”, are very real. Just because no one has to directly account for them does not mean that they can be ignored.

Now let me say immediately that this that is not a uniquely Chinese problem — indeed anyone who drives a car (including myself) is creating an externality; when we buy and operate our cars we do not include the costs to do with the CO2 that we dump into the atmosphere. That cost is not our problem. “They” will come up with a solution.

Green Car

But we can “do our bit”; if  we are responsible citizens we buy a “green car” that do not create emissions. In my neighborhood we have a garage that leases electric cars (they even have “green” parking spots for those cars). Their message is simple and their message is wrong. They are saying, “Use this electric car and you will not create CO2 and other pollutants”. But they don’t ask:

  • What are the emissions of the power plants that generated the electricity that the car uses (after all, the power plant converts hydrocarbon fuel into electricity which is then converted into motion whereas a normal car converts hydrocarbon fuel directly into motion)?
  • What are the emissions associated with smelting the steel and other materials needed to fabricate this car’s special features?
  • What are the emissions and disposal problems associated with the batteries that the car uses?
  • . . . and so on and so on.

A hard analysis of these questions could demonstrate that the nice green car is actually dirtier than a simple, economical gasoline car. Who knows? Has anyone done the analysis? Our thinking stops at the end of the tailpipe.

So what does all of the above have to do with Process Safety Management (PSM) — the topic of this blog series?

I started in the PSM business in its early days: the late 1980s. This was the time when the first regulations on the topic were being hammered out by OSHA and other agencies. (Individual companies had their own PSM programs but there was no industry standard or consensus.) They were exciting times — I recall some of the first conferences were packed out, people were squeezing into the conference rooms to hear those first papers. And I also recall that the very first time that I saw the phrase “Process Safety Management” my immediate and instinctive response was that it should not include the words “Safety”. A well-designed and implemented Process Management program will help improve all facets of an operation: environmental, production, human performance and — incidentally — safety.

25 years later I still adhere to this view: Process Safety Management in not about safety — it’s about management. It is why, throughout my career, when someone has said that I am “in safety” I have pushed back; I am no more (and no less) “in safety” than any other employee. For the same reason I have always refused to have the word ‘Safety’ on my business cards.

My second reaction to the initial PSM standard was that it was about systems. Here are the fourteen elements from the first OSHA standard (they haven’t changed much).

  1. Employee Participation
  2. Process Safety Information
  3. Process Hazards Analysis
  4. Operating Procedures
  5. Training
  6. Contractors
  7. Prestartup Safety Review
  8. Mechanical Integrity
  9. Hot Work
  10. Management of Change
  11. Incident Investigation
  12. Emergency Planning And Response
  13. Compliance Audits
  14. Trade Secrets

Process Safety Management

The second book that I wrote on the topic of PSM was entitled  Process Safety Management (now replaced by the 2nd edition of Process Risk and Reliability Management). In it I wrote,



The elements of process safety have strong interaction with one another — it is not possible to meet the requirements of one of the elements without considering its effect on the others. The inter-connectedness of the elements can be illustrated by considering the development of an Emergency Response Plan, in which the following sequence of actions—involving seven of the elements may occur.

1. The writing of the Emergency Response Plan (Element 12) requires a knowledge of which hazards have to be addressed.

2. Consequently a Process Hazards Analysis (Element 3) is required to identify the hazards.

3. In order to be able to carry out the hazards analysis, information from sources such as P&IDs and material safety data sheet (MSDS) is needed. Much of this information is included in the Process Safety Information (Element 2) .

4. Once the Emergency Response Plan has been developed, it will be necessary to train everyone in its use (Element 5).

5. The Emergency Response Plan has to be audited on a regular basis (Element 13).

6. During the training process, those being trained will come up with ideas that will improve the quality of the Emergency Response Plan. This is Employee Participation (Element 1).

7. After going through the Management of Change step (Element 10), these ideas can be used to upgrade the emergency manual.

When considered in isolation, many of the elements appear to be the “most important.” For example, Employee Participation could be considered to be the key element because, if the employees do not participate in the process safety program, then that program will not function properly. But Management of Change could be considered the “most important” because the root cause of all incidents is uncontrolled change. On the other hand, all of the elements require a solid base of up-to-date, comprehensive information. Therefore, Process Safety Information is the “most important.” But then it could be argued that Incident Investigation is what really matters because incidents reveal what is really going on in the organization.

The answer, of course, is that none of them are “the most important”. They are all part of a holistic system.

Which brings us back to “APEC Blue”, the skies of Beijing and the issue of externalities.

The whole environmental movement can be viewed as being an attempt to introduce systems thinking into our industrial and commercial processes. Chemical plants, offshore production platforms,  oil refineries and even green cars do not not operate in isolation — each is part of a system, and all of the system costs should be included in their operations.

A similar way of thinking applies to energy production. For example, people point to wind power as being an acceptable alternative to the hydrocarbon fuels (coal and natural gas) that we currently use to create electric power. After all, wind energy is completely clean and it does not require us to create any kind of waste.

But let’s dig down a little. The wind turbines and their support towers have to be manufactured from steel, and that steel has to be smelted and the smelting takes energy — energy that is provided by natural gas in most cases. Going back a step, the steel is made from iron ore which is mined using diesel-powered equipment. And that equipment is also made from steel and other raw materials — all of which take (hydrocarbon) energy for their manufacture. And all these products and intermediate products have to be transported, mostly using diesel-fueled trucks.


Even when the wind turbine has been erected and is in operation it requires lubrication (oil), spare parts (steel and other materials) and electronics (rare earths). The point, of course, is that wind energy is not a stand-alone solution — it is part of a bigger system, and should be treated as such. Based on the current industrial infrastructure it is inconceivable that a wind power system could be built and operated using wind power alone.


Earlier in this post I noted that Process Safety Management got its start in the late 1980s. So the topic is now at least 25 years old. It is mature; it is no longer exciting. There have been few conceptual leaps in our understanding of PSM in recent years. For example, most of the papers at PSM conferences now discuss detailed issues such as which types of process hazards analysis to use in which circumstances. Ironically, this apparent lack of big changes can be seen as something of a compliment to the PSM community. Although no PSM program is ever complete great strides have been made. We were faced with a problem twenty five years ago and we addressed that problem. Which begs the question as to whether Process Safety Management can make the kind of conceptual leap that it did in the 1980s or whether it will continue to improve only incrementally.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

We started this post by referencing the Archdruid Report — a weekly blog written by John Michael Greer that was started in the year 2006. The failure to understand systems is one of his themes. For example, he writes,




There’s an interesting divergence between the extreme complexity of the predicament that besets contemporary industrial civilization, on the one hand, and the remarkable simplicity of the failures of reasoning that have sent us hurtling face first into that predicament, on the other. Nearly all of those failures share a common root, which is the inability—or at least the unwillingness—of most people in the modern world to pay attention to the natural cussedness of whole systems.

And it is in the arena of systems thinking that I believe that process safety professionals could make a great contribution. As I already showed with regard to the first OSHA standard, systems thinking was baked into the PSM pie from the very beginning. However most of those elements refer to internal processes only — there was, at that time, little consideration of issues “over the fence”.

But this attitude is changing. For example, the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) has developed an updated list of PSM elements (they have a total of 20). One of them is Stakeholder Outreach. Stakeholders include people living near the facility, stock holders and local businesses. They all want to be associated with a facility that operates safely, cleanly and profitably.

This is good, as far as it goes, but, in its present form, it has three drawbacks. First, the concept of stakeholders it does not exhibit systems thinking. The manager of a process facility may work with people in the community, for example, to ensure that they understand how that facility interacts with their lives (both positive and negative). But the overall system impact of the facility is not considered.

Second, and related to the above comment, stakeholders are generally people who know about the facility and are aware of its benefits and costs. But true systems thinking considers the entire impact of a facility’s operation.


Consider the following headline from the Guardian newspaper (2015-02-12).

Climate change is likely to cause decade-long mega-droughts across US south-west and Great Plains.

Not only is the State of California undergoing an unprecedented four year drought — it appears as if that area is heading for a 100 year drought. So we have a situation where a California chemical plant that manufactures fertilizer is generating emissions that are destroying the agricultural business on which it relies. But the system effect is world-wide. Chemical plants in California and steel plants in China each affect the climate of the other country.

The third difficulty to do with the phrase ‘Stakeholder Outreach’ is contained in the very word ‘Outreach’.  The word seems to imply that we are here, doing what we are doing, and that we will choose to talk to other people. In point of fact, every industrial facility is ‘outreaching’ whether it likes it or not. It takes raw material from the earth (either directly or indirectly); it consumes energy and it produces waste products as entropy. Outreach is not a choice.

So this is the opportunity for process safety professionals. Our industrial systems are part of the world biosphere. Just as our “green cars” affect the climate of China, so their industry affects our weather patterns. As Greer says we need people who are willing to pay attention to the natural cussedness of whole systems.