Although the federal government and the US oil and gas industry responded quickly and aggressively to identify and correct problems that caused the Apr. 20 Macondo deepwater well blowout and subsequent crude-oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s still not clear that safety and environmental lessons learned from the largest offshore environmental disaster in US history are still being applied, speakers at a Georgetown University conference said on Oct. 15.
“We have a number of challenges in front of us to maintain this vigilance,” US Department of the Interior Chief of Staff Tommy P. Beaudreau said during the final session of a 2-day conference cosponsored by the Ad-Hoc Industry Natural Resources Group and GU’s Environmental Initiative.
Beaudreau suggested that some operators may be starting to cut corners amid concerns about economic pressures. “We need to make sure they understand that their best interests lie in keeping their operations safe and environmentally sound, and not responding to short-term pressures,” he said.
“It’s also important for the American people not to go to sleep,” Beaudreau said. “All sorts of light are shed on a problem during a major event. It tends not to shine as brightly as time passes.”
A second speaker, Dina Cappiello, who was the Associated Press’s national environmental reporter before joining Edelman’s energy sector as a vice-president in March, said, “It’s not over. This event colors every subsequent offshore oil and gas story, but there’s not as much attention on its implications.”
Cappiello recalled that it took several days as events unfolded after the well blew out, allowing gas to escape and ignite at the surface, taking 11 lives and destroying Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig, for government regulators and the industry to grasp that the event was more serious than it initially appeared.
‘Willing to drop everything’
Scientists recognized this quickly, said a third speaker, former US Geological Survey Director Marcia K. McNutt who now edits Science Magazine. “Many in academia and industry were willing to drop everything and look at what happened and why,” she said. “Many industry professionals defied the advice of their companies’ in-house counsels to give the government advice on what [Macondo well operator BP PLC] should do.”
There wasn’t a single person among them who wasn’t willing to drop everything and come down to Houston, McNutt said. “This was actionable science, delivered on deadlines to policymakers on a ‘no regrets’ basis,” she said. “It never advances careers.”
A prime example involved placement of a capping stack to contain the leak from the blownout well on June 10, 2010, amid concerns that miscalculations could create new fractures heading outward and creating new leaks.
McNutt said an agreement reached with BP stipulated that pressure had to be at a certain level to prevent this. When initial tests showed it was not, a hydrologist in Menlo Park, Calif., stayed up through the night running calculations that showed the well’s depletion, and not leaks, caused the lower pressure, and the capping proceeded successfully.
“We need to create a community of disaster research which recognizes that many disasters have common conditions,” McNutt said. “Scientists have to learn to communicate with decision-makers in language they understand. They need to develop a timelier peer review protocol which allows quicker, more effective decisions.” An immediate question became how event-pressured decisions can be translated into good long-term policies, she indicated.
A fourth speaker—Daniel L. McFadden, a University of California at Berkeley economics professor emeritus who shared the 2000 Nobel Prize for Economics—agreed. “We need mechanisms which step outside one kind of disaster and develop processes which can apply to others,” he said.
Necessary immediate reforms
Cappiello said while Congress did little more than express outrage and call for reforms, the Obama administration already was starting to make changes, starting with breaking up the US Minerals Management Service which oversaw oil and gas activity on the federal Outer Continental Shelf.
Beaudreau said this obviously was needed because it had operated from its inception with a clear conflict of interests. He noted that when DOI investigators interviewed the agency’s former directors and asked what they had considered their biggest responsibly, most said it was generating revenue.
“We realized back then that we’d have to answer some pretty tough questions about how we issue permits and regulate offshore oil and gas activities because of what happened,” Beaudreau said. “The industry had to answer the same questions, but the public generally became more apathetic.”
Five years later, more questions are being asked now about costs then consequences, Beaudreau said. “It’s easier to get information about potential costs, but more difficult to quantify potential benefits,” he said. “It’s an enormous challenge. This was a terrible disaster that affected millions of people. But it also helped us make the case for reforms and additional resources for the regulator. We were able to get more funding for regulators, and get the industry to pay for inspection and other costs.”
But the DOI official added that the kind of complacency that existed at MMS before Macondo may exist now in many ways onshore with the US Bureau of Land Management and the onshore oil and gas producers it regulates.
“It’s in even worse shape than MMS was in its ability to conduct inspections and oversee activity,” he said. “Add to this the present climate in Congress which leads to agencies no longer getting reliable annual budgets so they can make long-term plans, and there’s reason to worry.”
Contact Nick Snow at [email protected].