Two US scientific academies urged companies involved in offshore oil and gas activities to take a “system safety” approach to anticipate and manage possible dangers at every operating level. The National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council also said in their final report on the 2010 Macondo deepwater well incident that an enhanced regulatory approach should combine strong safety goals with mandatory oversight at critical operating points.
"Industry and regulators need to include a factual assessment of all the risks in deepwater drilling operations in their decisions and make the overall safety of the many complex systems involved a top priority," said Donald C. Winter, a University of Michigan engineering practice professor and former US Navy secretary who chaired the committee that produced the final report.
Winter said the final report acknowledges that several significant changes have been made since BP PLC’s deepwater well in the gulf blew out on April 20, 2010, leading to an explosion and fire that killed 11 workers and destroyed Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig. This resulted in a massive oil spill that took months to cap and contain.
“The question remains whether these responses represent a start toward an effective operating and regulatory regime, or whether they’re part of a transitory response,” Winter told reporters during a Dec. 14 teleconference as the National Academies of Science issued the final report.
In a statement following its release, US Sec. of the Interior Ken Salazar, who asked the two national scientific academies to independently investigate the incident, said their final conclusions help affirm efforts Interior has made in the last 18 months to raise the bar on offshore oil and gas safety and operations oversight.
“Their analysis complements the body of work that has helped us take steps to strengthen our oversight, including reports by the Joint Investigation Team and the president’s Oil Spill Commission,” Salazar said. “The work we have done to implement rigorous new offshore drilling and safety rules and reform offshore regulation and oversight is in line with the committee’s recommendations and with our goals moving forward.”
The oil and gas industry also has already taken significant steps to improve offshore safety practices and oil spill prevention and response capabilities, according to Erik Milito, the American Petroleum Institute’s upstream and industry operations director.
“Through API’s standards process and the Center for Offshore Safety, the industry is leading the way in applying the best elements of the most successful existing safety programs, including the use of independent auditing and certification by third parties,” he said. “We look forward to reviewing the report and combining this knowledge with the ongoing efforts by the industry to continuously improve operations.”
Winter confirmed that much of what the final report contained was in the committee’s earlier interim report or addressed by other groups. “We have been able to assess all these other reports and provide a commentary on the numerous suggestions and recommendations to the agencies responsible for regulating these activities,” he said.
The final report said that despite challenging geological conditions, alternative techniques and processes could have been used to safely prepare the Macondo well for temporary abandonment. Several signs of trouble also were ignored by the management and crew at the wellsite, it added. “We view the decision to proceed to temporary abandonment after the attempt to cement the well as the pivotal decision leading to the blowout,” said Winter. “Up until that time, the team had control of the well and multiple options were available. Once it decided to disregard cement test results, it became impossible to turn back.”
Both the industry and its regulators had misplaced confidence in blowout preventers’ ability to act as fail-safe mechanisms in the event of a blowout despite numerous past warnings of BOP systems potentially failing, the final report continued. “The inability of the BOP to perform under certain conditions was seen early in the decade, but did not result in performance criteria or minimum specifications for purchasers and designers to work with, even though there’s a significant safety consideration involved,” said Roger L. McCarthy, founder and owner of McCarthy Engineering in Palo Alto, Calif., and a member of the academies’ investigating committee who also participated in the teleconference.
“BOPs are a great idea,” Winter added. “They have provided a measure of safety over the years they have been used. But they don’t work all the time. The conditions they are expected to operate in can be very difficult. The best approach is not to rely on the BOP, but to make sure that adequate safety measures are taken during the design and construction of the well itself.”
Areas of responsibility
The final report also said that well operators should ultimately be responsible and accountable for well integrity because they are the only ones able to see all design, construction, and operations aspects. It also said that the drilling contractor should be held responsible and accountable for offshore equipment’s operation and safety.
It also called on the industry and its regulators to significantly expand formal education and training of offshore operations’ employees to ensure that they can properly implement safety measures. Winter applauded DOI’s establishment of its Safety and Environmental Management Systems program as a good initial step, but added that there are limits on how quickly regulators can move. “Highly skilled individuals independently need to review safety case documents and evaluate approaches,” he said. “Given the challenge of hiring the right individuals, we realize this will take time. There are a number of examples in Norway, the UK, and Australia where similar transitions have been made.”
Requiring that such evaluations be conducted only by certified professional engineers could be a problem, another committee member warned during the teleconference. “The registered PE, as it exists right now, is something of a state-by-state qualification,” said Paul M. Bommer, a senior petroleum engineering lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. “Not all the states have the same testing or rights and privileges. I may go further and say that most states don’t reciprocate. So it may be necessary to take a look at how these folks are licensed and see if there could be a meeting of the minds to reach a national standard.”
The final report said that US offshore drilling operations have been regulated by several government agencies, often with overlapping responsibilities. It recommended establishment of a single entity to integrate system safety offshore. It also said that incident reporting would be improved if anonymous reports were allowed, and called on corporations to investigate all such reports and disseminate lessons learned to personnel and the industry as a whole.
“We focused on the safety culture because we viewed it as a long-term way of instituting the necessary care and sensitivity that is being discussed right now,” Winter said. “Given all this attention, we believe it is reasonable to resume drilling in the gulf, although further improvements are needed.”
Contact Nick Snow at firstname.lastname@example.org.