Environment
 

BP revisited: ‘Safer than ever’ may not be safe at all when it comes to offshore rigs

Blackened with oil from the BP spill, a brown pelican awaits resuscitation at an Alabama rehab center.

Tom MacKenzie / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Blackened with oil from the BP spill, a brown pelican awaits resuscitation at an Alabama bird rehab center.

BP’s oil rig explosion and catastrophic spill began in April 2010, but the real anniversary should be May. That’s when we became gripped again by feelings of helplessness and anger more intense than anything we had known since Hurricane Katrina.

Oil spewed into the gulf for months while BP, one of the largest companies in the world, scrambled ineffectually to stanch the toxic pollution. Remember the “top kill” injections and “top hat” containment dome that briefly raised our hopes? Those didn’t work. It got so bad it became farcical. At one point BP reportedly considered injecting golf balls and human hair into the well to plug it. All we could do was watch and wonder: “How could it come to this?”

A BP lawyer would later defend the company’s failed well-control plan by saying it was “consistent with every other operator in the Gulf of Mexico.” That was meant to be a defense, but to me it sounded more like an industry-wide indictment.

Most news stories marking the April 20 anniversary explored the lingering effects of the spill on ecosystems and seafood. Far less attention was paid to the risk of another well blowout, the failure that triggered the oil spill. Are we safer in 2014? Have we done enough to ensure a similar tragedy never occurs again? A review of evidence from the past four years should give us pause.

The national bipartisan commission on the BP oil spill marked the recent anniversary with an assessment of drilling safety progress. “Offshore drilling is safer than it was four years ago,” the report conceded, while stressing that much more needs to be done.

Times-Picayune columnist James Varney put on rose-colored glasses and went further:  “Offshore drilling is safer than ever and gets safer every year,” Varney wrote. Many in the oil industry concur. As if reading from a script, they cheerfully remind us that 50,000 wells have been drilled in the Gulf with only one major accident.

Let’s inspect these claims in order:

The spill commission deserves a lot of praise for its recommendations, but I wince when I hear that drilling is safer now than four years ago. I’m reminded of the Bush administration’s refrain that New Orleans flood protection is even better than it was prior to Katrina. Big freakin’ deal.

If our go-to benchmark is the period immediately prior to a mega-disaster — be it catastrophic levee failures or a record-setting offshore spill — we need to rethink how we measure progress. “Better than ever before” means beans when a single glitch will turn your world inside out.

Varney’s claim that “offshore drilling is safer than ever” is shaped by that kind of flawed logic. It sounds substantive, but what does it really mean after 11 perished on a burning rig and 200 million gallons of oil fouled the Gulf? And Varney’s claim that drilling is increasingly safe is equally questionable. Technology has advanced, sure, but so has the complexity of extracting minerals from ever deeper and more remote wells. The industry is increasingly reliant on higher risk plays in the offshore deep. And many of the key adventurers taking those risks have résumés with hideously poor safety records.

Anyone who recites the “50,000 wells with one major accident” talking point apparently thinks you’re an imbecile. They want to throw you off-guard with a seemingly bold claim that masks true risk. Energy writer Loren Steffy debunked that tactic in a recent column. Only 43 wells comparable to the one in the Macondo tract have been drilled — not tens of thousands. And the “one major accident” happens to be the worst in the history of offshore drilling.

A growing amount of troubling evidence indicates workplace and environmental safety has not improved since 2010. Here’s one metric that should be deeply concerning: 20 independent oil companies working in the gulf have scored poorly on recent safety inspections.

Granted, today we have what we should’ve had four years ago: pre-positioned 100-ton capping stacks that are ready to be deployed in case a blowout unleashes another oil gusher in the deep. So that is indeed (belated) progress. And it was the chief basis of the spill commission’s conclusion that drilling safety has improved. As containment strategies go, it sure beats talk of plugging runaway wells with barber shop clippings and dimpled Titleists.

But there are myriad safety questions on other fronts. For example:

Despite industry deaths reaching a 10-year high in 2012, the oil lobby is resisting calls to comply with process safety standards oversight. Other industries comply with these regulations, but the oil industry says it’s overkill. Apparently, “erring” on the side of safety is too much of a bother for the most lucrative industry on earth, even after an historic oil spill and a spike in workplace deaths at their facilities.

Big Oil is also skeptical of a new confidential and voluntary hotline to report “near miss” events. Data like this would be a hugely important tool in federal efforts to improve safety systems. The aviation and railroad industries observe similar reporting protocols. Why can’t Big Oil? An industry that always claims safety is its top priority — and that likes to compare its technological sophistication to NASA — shouldn’t have a problem with reporting near-miss events.

It’s not as if close calls haven’t occurred since 2010.

In March 2014, a floating production unit operated by Talos Energy suffered a complete power loss, backup power included. The platform began to drift. Had the emergency disconnect failed — luckily it didn’t — we might have had severed pipelines and a 13,500-barrel-per-day oil gusher in the Gulf. Fuel Fix reports that Talos has suffered a number of recent safety problems:

In July 2013, it countered a leaking gas well. And in October, a worker died after falling off a platform operated by Talos. The company is one of just two firms being forced to improve the safety of its operations under a “performance improvement plan” imposed by the bureau [of Safety and Environmental Enforcement].

Another company whose operations the feds find unacceptable is Black Elk Energy. It too is required to come up with a “performance improvement plan.”

WWL-TV’s David Hammer reported on Black Elk’s fatal 2012 rig incident:

A federal accident report …  blamed Black Elk and its contractors for the deaths of three Filipino workers. The report said the contractors communicated poorly about when it was safe to perform ‘hot work’ and failed to follow their own safety procedures.

In one particularly damning section of the report, investigators said gas detectors were not functioning, and when employees complained, their supervisor told them not to worry and to hang the broken devices as ‘decorations.’

That’s appalling and inexcusable, especially in a post-Macondo drilling environment. Hammer’s report went on to say that “contractors working for three different oil companies were issued surprise well-control tests this year [2013] and all three had at least one employee who flunked.”

Brian Salerno, the director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement puts it this way: “Safety culture is very much a company-specific thing at this point.” He adds:  “We’re a long way from saying there’s widespread adoption of safety culture in the industry.”

Some companies apparently “get it” but others don’t. That’s unsettling, given what Steffy has dubbed “the long-standing industry practice of coddling, rather than calling out, its weakest performers.”

Both Black Elk and Talos have a high-level BP connection. Black Elk Energy is headed by former BP executive John Hoffman. A group called Riverstone Holdings is a major shareholder in Talos and financed recent acquisitions by Talos. Who’s behind Riverstone? None other than Lord Browne, the former BP chief executive with the awful safety record I wrote about last year.

Browne, through Riverstone, owns Fieldwood Energy, which continues to gobble up billions in assets in the shallow waters off Louisiana. These lease tracts are for “ultra-deep” drilling plays — plays that require drilling past exhausted oil fields into high-pressure, high-temperature gas fields sometimes tens of thousands of feet deeper.

Exxon backed out of a similar shallow-water project years ago, fearing “a blowout from an ultra-deep well could cause a repeat of the PR nightmare it endured after the Exxon Valdez spill. The high temperatures and pressures found 30,000 feet below the earth were just not something ExxonMobil wanted to be involved with,” according to a report on the decision. Lord Browne, on the other hand, goes full steam ahead.

It may be coincidence that Talos and Black Elk have links to former BP bigwigs, and that they’ve had a string of accidents, near misses and fatalities. But after the Macondo disaster no one deserves the benefit of the doubt.

So, back to the anniversary question: Are “we” — the folks who live on the coast and work on the rigs — safer than we were four years ago? Seems doubtful to me — especially given the industry’s tolerance of reckless types like Browne planning ultra-deep drilling experiments within a stone’s throw of our battered coast.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • KC King

    In the discipline of process engineering and it’s associated quality-driven practice called continuous process improvement (CPI), there is a concept of maturity and capability. High performance institutions are sufficiently mature to perform high capability processes. The underlying practices entail incrementally increasing both capability.

    After 25 years of working in and around high performance conditions I thin it is fair to assess that oil industry and petroleum engineering in particular as incapable and immature. An indication of this is each discussion of process issues always seems to start with the presumption that they will only find the solution within the hydrocarbon industry. This is in strong contrast to even more exacting disciplines, such as aerospace, that subscribe to the notion of benchmarking against other domains to find best practices.

    What the regulators and the industry should be doing is to establish industry wide expectations capabilities that reflect best engineering and standards of maturity that processes are: performed, managed, engineered, qualitatively improved and quantitatively improved. There should be a industry standard for measuring and continuously improving performance.

    The current industry attitude and their ideological apologists are stuck on denying there is even a problem. Regulators should demand the highest conceivable level of capability and maturity commensurate with the risks that already been realized and for there is apparent motivation to improve.