Diligence essential to avoid future offshore mistakes, panel told

April 23, 2015
The offshore oil and gas industry—as well as the federal agencies that regulate it—must remain diligent to avoid the mistakes that led up to the Macondo deepwater well blowout and crude oil spill 5 years ago, witnesses told the US House Natural Resources Committee.

The offshore oil and gas industry—as well as the federal agencies that regulate it—must remain diligent to avoid the mistakes that led up to the Macondo deepwater well blowout and crude oil spill 5 years ago, witnesses told the US House Natural Resources Committee.

The committee held its hearing 2 days after the fifth anniversary of the well blowout and explosion that killed 11 people who were working aboard Transocean Ltd.’s semisubmersible rig in the Gulf of Mexico. As the vessel sank, it ruptured connecting lines to BP PLC’s deepwater well and spewed nearly 5 million bbl of crude into the Gulf of Mexico that took 87 days to cap and contain.

There is widespread recognition 5 years later that a great deal has been accomplished to address safety and environmental issues that the accident and spill raised, Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said in his opening statement. “Moving forward, improvements to safety and promoting responsible offshore development will require the continued involvement of both public and private sectors working collaboratively,” Bishop said.

Call to learn, improve

Other witnesses agreed with these opening statements. Holly Hopkins, a senior policy advisor at the American Petroleum Institute, said, “While the industry is committed to a goal of zero fatalities, zero injuries, and zero incidents, it takes any safety or environmental incident as a call to learn and to improve technology, training, operational procedures, and industry standards and best practices.”

Charlie Williams, executive director of the Center for Offshore Safety (COS), which the US oil and gas industry created in the months following the Macondo incident, said, “America’s offshore oil and natural gas industry is safer than before, but our goal will always be zero accidents and zero spills.”

Williams said COS is devoted to continually assessing, learning about, and improving Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) well operators implement along the US Outer Continental Shelf.

“While I believe the industry has always been safety conscious, the Macondo tragedy represented a defining challenge that forced all of us to become even more cognizant of safety,” said David Coatney, managing director of HWCG LLC.

US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) Director Brian Salerno said, “As our commitment and duty to the American people, we will remain vigilant in instituting reform efforts and lessons learned since this tragic event.”

Coatney said concerted efforts by BSEE’s predecessor agency, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement; the US Coast Guard, and the Marine Well Containment Corp. as well as HWGC leveraged “the collaborative powers of thousands of man-years of industry experience to set a new bar for response to a deepwater containment event.”

Two miles, and deeper

Another witness—Steven A. Murawski, who holds the Peter R. Betzer Chair of Biological Oceanography at the University of South Florida—conceded that both government regulators and the offshore oil and gas industry have become more safety conscious in 5 years since Macondo.

But a basic question now is whether the nation is preparing for circumstances from the last spill, or anticipating conditions that will occur during the next major spill, Murawski said. “Remember that 5 years ago, a mile-deep well was a novelty,” he told the committee. “Now, the industry is drilling in 2 miles water depth and even deeper.” He said the US should prepare comprehensive pre-spill environmental baselines of the OCS’s sediments, water columns, and marine life at least every 5 years.

“The culture of safety is one of the most critical elements going forward,” Salerno said. “There’s been a noticeable change in how people make decisions the last few years. Taking safety to the next level is a focal point of our emphasis.”

Asked by committee member Jody Hice (R-Ga.) which companies operating offshore are making the most progress, BSEE’s director replied, “I’ve met with some which are leading lights. I’ve found others which are not. About 10% did not have the proper safety culture, and did not communicate effectively with their workers and contractors. We have greater oversight now where we have areas of concern, so we meet with them more frequently. If they don’t comply, we can order them to shut the well in.”

Many companies already had SEMS in place when BSEE imposed its requirements, Williams said. “They created the center so we could collaborate,” he said. “We developed voluntary protocols for annual reports to learn how we can work together better. We work to develop a balance between prescriptive and performance-based safety.”

Stop-work authority—under which an employee aboard an offshore rig can ask for a shutdown because he or she sees a problem developing—are becoming more common and better understood, COS’s executive director said.

“Companies have worked hard to encourage more people to use it,” he told committee members. “Most of it is not related to major safety items. A common issue is safe lifting, where people often find situations and stop operations before they turn into problems.”

Eight R&D areas

Hopkins said API and its members have established a robust oil spill response research and development program that oversees more than 25 projects in planning, mechanical recovery, dispersants, in-situ burning, remote sensing, shoreline protection, alternative technologies.

“While a great deal of attention continues to be given to offshore incidents, further focus is also being directed towards near-shore and inland spill response, and industry continues to engage with federal stakeholders, science, and the academic community on these areas of focus,” she said. Since 2010, API also has published more than 100 new and revised exploration and production standards, several of which specifically apply offshore, Hopkins said.

“The greatest improvement in emergency response since Macondo is maintenance of an integrated and comprehensive response solution, drilled frequently across the year with its members, and ready for immediate deployment,” said Coatney. “Today there are two containment consortiums for activities in the gulf, others for international operations, and multiple capping stacks matching pressure and flow requirements of wells.”

Contact Nick Snow at [email protected].

About the Author

Nick Snow

NICK SNOW covered oil and gas in Washington for more than 30 years. He worked in several capacities for The Oil Daily and was founding editor of Petroleum Finance Week before joining OGJ as its Washington correspondent in September 2005 and becoming its full-time Washington editor in October 2007. He retired from OGJ in January 2020.