Platts: Two years on, the seven lessons to be learned from Deepwater Horizon

April 11, 2012
oil rig

By Gary Gentile

As the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster approaches, an industry representative Wednesday touted gains made since the oil spill, while a former federal regulator cautioned that more needs to be done to make exploration safe, especially in frontier areas.

The industry’s review of the blowout on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico has led to “significant safety enhancements” and an “enhanced framework of rules, standards and oversight to ensure the highest level of safety for the development of our ample offshore resources,” Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute said during a conference call with reporters.

Milito highlighted the creation of the Center for Offshore Safety, with its well-respected executive director Charlie Williams, and the work that several industry task groups have been doing to strengthen safety standards.

That work includes a revision of an API recommended practice on blowout preventers, the massive set of valves on the wellhead that were once touted as the “fail safe” system for blowouts until the BOP on BP’s Macondo well was overwhelmed by the massive release of gases and failed.

The API is working with government regulators to strengthen the testing as well as the design requirements for BOPs and is also upgrading its “recommended” practice to the status of a standard, which caries more clout among offshore operators, Milito said.

But while gains have been made, increased vigilance is needed, especially as companies venture into ever deeper waters offshore and into pristine and untested areas such as the Arctic, Michael Bromwich, the former head of the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said at a global security conference.

Bromwich, now a private consultant, spoke at a conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He outlined seven lessons he said have been learned from the Macondo oil spill:

1) “Investments in safety and environmental protection must keep pace with advancing technology and continued ambition to move into the frontier areas.” Bromwich said that “clearly did not happen” either in government or in industry prior to Macondo.

2) “Industry needs to focus on creative ways to share innovations in safety and environmental protections, both with each other and with the government.”

While Bromwich did not mention it, one of the major initiatives of the new Center for Offshore Safety will be collecting data on the “near misses,” the almost blowouts. Williams said the data will be shared in order to identify the leading indicators of a potential offshore disaster.

3) “There needs to be a stepped-up research program on the specific challenges that are posed by frontier environments,” including the Arctic and the ultra-deepwater.

4) “Creative steps are needed to bolster the technical expertise of government through exchange programs with other countries and exchange programs with industry.”

5) “There needs to be renewed and continued focus on the recruitment of engineers,” to government service.

6) “Even in an era of government austerity…focus needs to be given on assuring adequate funding for the regulatory agencies.”

Bromwich noted that funding is better now than it has ever been. “But as memories fade, as the second year anniversary turns into the third and the fifth,” he said he is concerned that “the immediacy of the problem will recede and people will forget how important it is that the regulatory agencies need to be strong and robust.”

7) “There is a need for greater global cooperation on prevention, on containment and on spill response. This is truly a global enterprise. This is not a Gulf of Mexico issue, it’s not an Arctic issue, it’s a worldwide issue.”