What will be learned from the Paraguana explosion?

I rented a sweet-looking road bike from a bike shop in Bogotá Friday afternoon. Saturday morning at first light, a friend and I were riding up the Andean foothills in back of the city. Within a few kilometers, a crucial part — the bottom bracket — had loosened up and started to fall apart. The rest of the day was a series of messy attempts to fix it. I got back to the city and returned the bike. I told the shop worker who had rented me the thing that it was ill-maintained and that they need to do better in the future. He took responsibility, apologized and gave me a coupon for a free bike rental. I left satisfied that he will take more care with his rental bikes in the future.

I got home to sickening news. There was an explosion at the Amuay refinery in the Paraguana peninsula of Venezuela. 39 people are confirmed dead, at least one of them a child, and there are 80 injured. The blast destroyed a National Guard barracks and damaged more than 200 homes in the nearby community. The hospital said one of its admittees was 12 years old. Now, Sunday night, the fire continues to burn. I hope everyone injured recovers, and I wish well to the families of those killed. Incredible photos here.

What now? In any industrial disaster it is useful to figure out what happened and keep it from happening again. But that’s not going to happen. PDVSA management promptly ruled out a maintenance problem. I don’t quite understand how one rules out anything within 24 hours of an explosion like that. The BP Texas City refinery fire took two years to reconstruct.

Accidents are almost always the result of a combination of factors. One that we already know about, in this case, is that the fire equipment was anything but state of the art. Last week I toured an Ecopetrol facility where fixed foam-launching cannons can reach any corner of the plant. We already know from PDVSA that they didn’t have a system like that.

Right now, PDVSA’s communications office isn’t blaming anyone. But right after the explosion, there were hints of the usual paranoia and blame game. On Saturday, this is the sort of stuff they retweeted:

Translated: “The whole PDVSA family in solidarity and ready to help our brothers in Amuay. Knee on the ground. Alert for whatever comes from Maracaibo.”

“Knee on the ground” is an expression that means “armed and ready to defend.” As in, kneeling position with a rifle. One of the responses to this tweet is blunter, calling the explosion an “attack.”

Thousands of people with expertise in the field have seen crucial parts of PDVSA refineries, pumps, mixing plants, pipelines, and other oily, flammable facilities crumbling just as I saw my bottom bracket fall apart on Saturday. They have reported the problems to the appropriate authorities. But unlike a Bogotá bike shop, PDVSA has managed to make a system in which no one takes responsibility and nothing is fixed, even after people are injured or killed.

I don’t think PDVSA will learn anything from this explosion — just as the company failed to learn anything from its past errors. The company already has an impressive string of <a href="” target=”_blank”>fires, explosions, pipeline leaks and other disasters this year. But at no time does it ever take responsibility. My bike shop salesman intuitively got that a failure that endangers critical functions, health or safety is important. But the professional engineers running PDVSA don’t get that at all. Until people take responsibility for failure — either voluntarily or by being forced to — you don’t see change. Going back to BP, an independent regulator showed how everyone fucked up and now ensures systems are in place to prevent a repeat. In the case of Amuay, we won’t see such a thing. We’ll see a lot of fingers pointing at the empire, the nefarious opposition, you name it.

Venezuelan officials are far from alone in avoiding responsibility. But under the justification of “revolution,” that government has gone unusually far in eliminating the balance of institutional powers that normally forces people to take some responsibility for their errors. Workers’ paradise.

9 thoughts on “What will be learned from the Paraguana explosion?

  1. The Cat

    FUBAR is the least of what you’re gonna find out about this. And, of course, that neither the government nor PdVSA are responsible for ANYTHING: “I see nosing, I hear nosing, I speak nosing”. My condolences to the families of the victims of this shit.

  2. Discovery Alarm (@discoveryalarm)

    TARFU man. Good piece, even if I don’t have any idea whether its true about the maintenance and future. I guess I had to be there. Someone buy me a ticket to Venuzuela please, but maybe I should just trust you, as an independant journalist?…

  3. westslope

    In a rich, developed democracy, an incident like the Paraguana explosion would risk becoming a thorny election campaign issue. What are the odds of that happening in a mystical revolutionary (sic) place like Venezuela?

    I can imagine having fun with the slogans.

    => Nothing but the second best for Venezuelan workers!

    => Chavez said there would sacrifices in the struggle again imperialistic capitalism. So why are we sacrificing each other!?!!

    => Mothers! Your sons too can die for the Bolivarian cause! Onward to Glory!

    => An inspired revolutionary knows how to manage a lemonade stand. Replace management with partisan hacks.

  4. james meyers

    As a sr. process safety risk consultant with experience in thes ematters, you can’t determine root cause at the onset of these disasters, and the root cause for extereme cases may never be known. That these refineries were a reliability nightmare to begin with with their on stream issues is well knonw, one expects a serious gas leak has everything to do with either an operations error or lack or maintenance, the workers know, and in a conutry that reflected transparancy, this would be known quickly, as death is a truth motivator, but under Chavez, the actual root cause may never be spoken or realized.

  5. Rene

    Steven, what consequences do you see for Venezuelan oil production, internal fuel supply from the blast?

    1. sapitosetty Post author

      They are claiming that internal fuel supply is “guaranteed” but it’s hard to see how that works — you burn off a few cargoes of fuel, you can’t just make that up overnight. The public knows this. So I’m sure there will be (or maybe is — I’m not there) panic buying of fuel. That on its own causes a shortage.

      I doubt there will be any impact on immediate oil output but I don’t know — there are readers here who know more than I do, that’s for sure. Longer term, the blast will take PDVSA resources away from upstream and into downstream, which will impact production growth.

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