Past discussion of BOP problems is not scandalous

Bob Tippee
OGJ Editor

A blow to credibility must not limit the oil and gas industry’s ability to discuss technical problems.

The fatal blowout of the deepwater Macondo well and consequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have, of course, discredited the industry.

Producers said they could drill and complete wells in deep water with minimum risk. That assurance turns out to have been overstated. They said they could manage accidents. More than 3 weeks on, the well’s still spewing oil in 5,000 ft of water.

If a chastened industry is to earn back the acceptability of deepwater work, however, its professionals must feel free to address problems openly and candidly.

In the hysterical politics following the Apr. 20 explosion and fire on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon, industry workers might see communication of that type as hazardous.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee's Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee, is brandishing past discussions of blowout preventers as some sort of smoking gun.

A prominent mystery in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, of course, is the BOP’s apparent failure.

On the basis of concerns raised in papers presented at technical conferences and in Minerals Management Service studies, Cantwell alleges that the industry possessed incriminating foreknowledge of BOP problems.

Her web site says she has “uncovered technical reports by oil industry officials–including officers of BP and Transocean, the firm that ran the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded and sank on Apr. 20–that make clear that industry was well aware of problems with blowout preventers.”

Well, yes. Industry was aware and concerned enough about problems with BOPs to be discussing them in its meetings and with regulators. That’s how problem-solving works on the frontiers of technology and operation.

Existence of problems is no scandal. Deep water creates problems, responses to which must be continuous and accessible.

Treating discussion of deepwater problems as evidence of misbehavior can only discourage the essential sharing of information and expertise.

The industry must not hesitate to correct Cantwell’s misapprehensions. A blow to technical transparency must not become yet another casualty of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

(Online May 14, 2010; author’s e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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