bp oil spillThe oil slick spreading across the Gulf of Mexico has shattered the notion that offshore drilling had become safe. A close look at the accident shows that lax federal oversight, complacency by BP and the other companies involved, and the complexities of drilling a mile deep all combined to create the perfect environmental storm.

by John McQuaid, Science and Environment Journalist

It’s hard to believe now, as oil from the wrecked Deepwater Horizon well encroaches on the Louisiana marshes. But it was only six weeks ago that President Obama announced a major push to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. Obama’s commitment to lift a moratorium on offshore drilling reflected the widely-held belief that offshore oil operations, once perceived as dirty and dangerous, were now so safe and technologically advanced that the risks of a major disaster were infinitesimal, and managing them a matter of technocratic skill.

But in the space of two weeks, both the politics and the practice of offshore drilling have been turned upside down. Today, the notion that offshore drilling is safe seems absurd. The Gulf spill harks back to drilling disasters from decades past — including one off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. in 1969 that dumped three million gallons into coastal waters and led to the current moratorium. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is a classic “low probability, high impact event” — the kind we’ve seen more than our share of recently, including space shuttle disasters, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. And if there’s a single lesson from those disparate catastrophes, it’s that pre-disaster assumptions tend to be dramatically off-base, and the worst-case scenarios downplayed or ignored. The Gulf spill is no exception.

The post-mortems are only beginning, so the precise causes of the initial explosion on the drilling platform and the failure of a “blowout preventer” to deploy on the sea floor probably won’t be established for weeks or months. But the outlines of serious systemic problems have already emerged, indicating just how illusory the notion of risk-free drilling really was, while pointing to some possible areas for reform. These blunders include weak government oversight of the complex technical challenge of drilling deep wells many miles under the ocean surface and BP’s failure to evaluate — or even consider — worst-case scenarios.

A “blowout” on an oil rig occurs when some combination of pressurized natural gas, oil, mud, and water escapes from a well, shoots up the drill pipe to the surface, expands and ignites. Wells are equipped with structures called blowout preventers that sit on the wellhead and are supposed to shut off that flow and tamp the well. Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer failed. Two switches — one manual and an automatic backup — failed to start it.

When such catastrophic mechanical failures happen, they’re almost always traced to flaws in the broader system: the workers on the platform, the corporate hierarchies they work for, and the government bureaucracies that oversee what they do. For instance, a study of 600 major equipment failures in offshore drilling structures done by Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 80 percent were due to “human and organizational factors,” and 50 percent of those due to flaws in the engineering design of equipment or processes.

Bea has worked as an engineer on offshore drilling operations and was also one of the leaders of an independent engineering study of the New Orleans levee failures during Hurricane Katrina. And the Gulf spill has some similarities to the 2005 flood, which was caused in large part by faulty floodwalls approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. The common threads between Katrina and the current oil spill, Bea wrote in an email, are “hubris, arrogance, ignorance… combined with a natural hazard.”

With near-shore and shallow reserves of fossil fuels largely depleted, drilling has moved farther offshore, into deeper waters and deeper underground. The technology for locating oil and gas reserves and for drilling has improved, but the conditions are extreme and the challenges more formidable. “This is a pretty frigging complex system,” Bea said in an interview. “You’ve got equipment and steel strung out over a long piece of geography starting at surface and terminating at 18,000 feet below the sea floor. So it has many potential weak points. Just as Katrina’s storm surge found weaknesses in those piles of dirt — the levees — gas likes to find weakness in anything we connect to that source.”

He questions whether energy companies and government agencies have fully adapted to the new realities. “The danger has escalated exponentially,” he said. “We’ve pushed it to the bloody edge in this very, very unforgiving environment, and we don’t have a lot of experience.”

Finally, there’s a problem with fragmentation of responsibility: Deepwater Horizon was BP’s operation. But BP leased the platform from Transocean, and Halliburton was doing the deepwater work when the blowout occurred. “Each of these organizations has fundamentally different goals,” Bea said. “BP wants access to hydrocarbon resources that feed their refinery and distribution network. Halliburton provides oil field services. Transocean drives drill rigs, kind of like taxicabs. Each has different operating processes.”

Andrew Hopkins, a sociology professor at the Australian National University and an expert on industrial accidents, wrote a book called Failure to Learn about a massive explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City in 2005 that killed 15 people. He says that disaster has several possible insights for the oil spill: one was that BP and other corporations sometimes marginalize their health, safety, and environmental departments. “The crucial voice for safety in Texas City was shielded from the site manager, and the very senior agency people in the BP corporate head office in London had no role in ensuring safety at the site level,” he said. “The organizational structures disempowered the voices for safety and I think you’ve got the same thing here” in the Gulf spill.

But the more profound problem is a failure to put risks in perspective. BP and other companies tend to measure safety and environmental compliance on a day-to-day, checklist basis, to the point of basing executive bonuses on those metrics. But even if worker accident rates fall to zero, that may reveal nothing about the risk of a major disaster. “These things we are talking about are risks that won’t show up this year, next year — it may be 10 years down the road before you see one of these big blowouts or refinery accidents,” Hopkins said. “This same thing happened in the global financial crisis. Bankers were paid big bonuses for risks taken this year or next year, but the real risks came home to roost years later.”

That assumption — that catastrophic risks were so unlikely they were unworthy of serious attention — appears to have driven a lot of the government decision-making on drilling as well. The Minerals Management Service, a division of the Interior Department, oversees drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. Since the 1980s, the MMS has routinely granted a blanket exemption from doing a comprehensive environmental impact statement to individual drilling operations, according to Holly Doremus, a professor of environmental law at Berkeley. The Washington Post and the Associated Press reported last week that BP’s Deepwater Horizon lease received that exemption (called a “categorical exclusion”) last year. It was based on several analyses that downplayed the risks of a major oil spill. One, published in 2007, estimated the “most likely size” of an offshore spill at 4,600 barrels. NOAA’s current, conservative estimate of the Gulf spill put its total at more than 80,000 barrels, increasing at a rate of 5,000 per day.

Energy companies have aggressively lobbied to avoid formally analyzing worst-case scenarios since the Carter administration first required them in instances where there was uncertainty about the risk of disaster.

“They thought it would lead to irrational public resistance to projects,” Doremus said. “But to me this Deepwater Horizon thing is an example where a worst-case analysis would have been useful. If they had done a worst case analysis they’d have to consider, well, ‘What if our blowout preventer didn’t work? And what if it happened during a bout of bad weather when the spill might reach the shore?’” Instead, BP officials admitted they were stunned by the disaster, and they and the government have largely improvised their response.

The evidence shows MMS has not taken an aggressive stance policing offshore drilling. Based on experience with malfunctioning blowout preventers, for instance, the MMS did suggest that energy companies install backup devices for triggering them. But it was only a suggestion, not a requirement, and U.S. drilling operators have declined to do so.

MMS has also been plagued by scandals in recent years, including one in which eight employees were disciplined for partying, having sex with, and receiving expensive gifts from their energy industry counterparts. Critics question whether the agency possesses the independence or the power to effectively tackle these issues post-spill. One sign of trouble: The MMS is a major player in investigating the spill and in the Outer Continental Shelf Oversight Board set up by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to examine the broader safety issues the accident raises.

“MMS is the regulator, and regulatory failure is a part of this,” Hopkins said. “It’s going to be investigating itself. It’s totally inappropriate.

John McQuaid is a journalist specializing in science, environment, and various forms of government dysfunction. His reporting at the New Orleans Times-Picayune won shares in three Pulitzer Prizes. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Slate, U.S. News, Wired, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He is also the co-author of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.

© 2010, Yale Environment 360. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Yale Environment 360 (30 Articles)

This post originally appeared on Yale Environment 360. Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. The site features original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. It is funded in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

  • http://www.oilandgasjobsearch.co.uk oil careers

    Thanks for the post. It’s interesting to see how BP tries to play down the event. Does this multi billion dollar company not have the resources to fix it?

  • John

    Thanks for this informative summary of the spill. I am sad and mad and we need to stop drilling and invest in safer, cleaner energy now. R & D needs to be directed to getting off oil, not looking for more.

    • aid

      it is better bp find a lab other than mexican gulf ,may be in a safe grave!

  • Dr. Mikhail Kravchuk

    Dear Sirs!

    Prevent a catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico can not only collecting donations and distributing them in distress.
    Win a catastrophe can only be applying the most advanced technologies. In an unprecedented catastrophe must be an adequate response. With this proposal we are writing to you.

    The only way to preserve life on the planet Earth and protect its environment is to switch to new technologies which would allow humankind to reimburse Nature for what we have been taking from it during the last 4 hundred years or so. Today, the media, we hear that the bad ecological situation is a payment for the comfort that we provide the current technocratic civilization, and no other way. This is a lie. Today, technology has reached a level at which each country can have a sufficient number of quality food products and energy. Unfortunately, existing in the world economy technological structure and financial flows do not give change the situation in the economy and ecology for the better.
    Recent events in the Gulf of Mexico are not just an incident; it is a world catastrophe which will affect most of the countries on the planet. Thereupon we have set up in London, Great Britain, the Independent Public Commission and invited a number of international scientists on board. Their research works can, from our point of view, liquidate both the catastrophe itself as well as its consequences in mid-to-long-term timeframe. The aim of the Commission is the search for and introduction of breakthrough technologies, which could solve current global problems in energy, food, medicine and the environment and reduce the risk of industrial accidents and natural disasters.
    Below you will find a description of various technologies and projects, selected by the Commission, which could quickly stop oil leaking from the well, liquidate the oil slick spill in the Gulf and help prevent or minimize the risk of similar events happening in the future.

    Yours sincerely,

    Dr. Tamara Voronina Mark Jeffery
    Great Britain, London Great Britain, London
    E-mail: info@tvrejuvenation.com E-mail: markjeffery@resortlands.net

    Dr. Mikhail Kravchuk,
    Russian Federation, Moscow
    E-mail: TheTree-ofLife@yandex.ru

    Our suggestions are based directly on research carried out during the past decade. The continuing disaster in the Mexican Gulf shows there is nothing more important for governments and energy companies to consider at the moment. In order to understand these methods, it is necessary to change the thinking about the existing world.


    The resolution of the disaster in the Mexican Gulf needs to be considered in 3 parts:-

    I. Cessation of oil entering the sea from the bore-hole.
    II. Dealing with the consequences of the oil spill in the Gulf area.
    III. Avoiding future global catastrophes by adopting the proven resource of fuel from water.

    Point 1.
    At the beginning of the millennium, experiments in the correction of the trajectory of hurricanes in the Mexican Gulf were held. The experiments were carried out under the leadership of N. Levashov. Levashov managed to put an energetic barrier in the way of hurricanes which diverted them back into the open ocean where they dispersed. In 2007 N. Levashov dismantled energy barrier. More information can be found on the site http://www.levashov.info , to switch to English version site, you need to click the mouse the English flag. In the section “articles” there are articles «Taming The Intractables: How to Make Hurricanes Behave» and «The Drought». These studies described some studies made by N. Levashov.
    The basis of N. Levashov is its ability to work with “dark matter”. Levashov developed equipment – generators, allowing him to control the “dark matter”, which, as you know, 90% of the universe. In essence, N. Levashov, restructure their generators, could increase the viscosity of oil around the geological horizon. The density of oil increases, and the pressure in the geological horizon falls. All together it will stop leaking oil from the wells. At the same time reorganizing his generators, there is a chance to annihilate all oil pollution on the water surface. Now N. Levashov is waiting invitation and supposes to make business in some days.
    This may sound fantastically, but it is true. See our report ‘ Strategy of global survival.’ Exactly such projects will save the world.
    Unfortunately, thirst for absolute power in the world thus having control over all technologies, doesn’t allow the majority of projects to start. We’ve proved that even now every country has a proper and qualified amount of food and sources of energy. But the world’s ruler directs the process. Natural disasters will soon smash the majority of this civilization, if the rulers of Mankind won’t change up their mind in the nearest future.

    Point 2.
    In 1998 – 2001 the group of Russian scientists from Telos-Technologies group is working in Great Britain, particular in Middlesex University, on the problem of cleansing water from oil pollution.
    The first technology allows to remove oil products from the water without chemicals (dispersants). It has been done in closed reservoirs, for example on ships collecting oil from the ocean surface.
    Secondly, the developed technology allows to stir up the activity of oil oxidizing bacteria 6-12 times more in water and soil. In the case of lack or absence of corresponding oil oxidizing bacteria, technology allows change the phenotype of the presented in the water or on the soil oil not oxidizing bacteria and they start discomposing the oil. After finished work, bacteria are transferred back to their phenotype, according to the corresponding command. These are the closed technologies of a double destination. There are reports, which prove that it is possible to use this method with a great benefit for the environment, in the case of oil spilt. All the documents can be attached.

    Point 3.
    To avoid similar global catastrophes the industrial world should embrace a new energy resource – fuel from water. This already exists and can be produced to any scale.
    A new kind of fuel, based on special structure of water was developed in Russia. This fuel is the most promising one as it is cheap and environmentally friendly. At the core of it lies the so called “special structure of water” effect. It takes around 90.0%-99.5% of plain water and just 0.5%-10.0% of any other combustible materials (vegetable oils, including rape seed oil, spirit, crude oil, residual oil fuel, diesel fuel etc.) to produce boiler fuel alone. Combustion heat of such boiler fuel is comparable to that of propane gas, and so notably exceeds similar qualities of diesel fuel.
    Transition to such special structure of water-based fuel would fully replace and save non exhaustible raw materials, such as hydrocarbons, for future generations. It would also enable us to make Earth atmosphere, polluted by combustion engines, thermo and electrical plants, much cleaner. Performance characteristics of such substance exceed almost all known kinds of fuel. The Ecological aspect of the new fuel is particularly important. Exhaust products of such fuel, are negligible – CO and emissions are times smaller than in any traditional kind of fuel. That is why transition to the suggested fuel will sharply decrease carbon dioxide emissions into the Earth atmosphere and will hence significantly contribute to solving global warming problem, which has been a great concern for the humanity nowadays.
    The know-how of these sorts of combustible substance, i.e. special structure of water-based fuels is rooted in utilisation of vortex and cavitation processes energy. It is aimed at defined transformation of water inner-molecular interactions with a wide range of hydrocarbons, i.e. already existing hydrocarbon fuel. The production costs of such fuel are another of its immensely important characteristic – when mass produced it shall start at 15-20 USD per tonne. The production equipment of such fuel could also be used for recycling and utilisation of various kinds of liquids, such as liquid radioactive materials, industrial and household waste, agricultural fertilizers, automobile liquids (engine oil) etc. Considering the latter it is clear that manufacturing of this sort of equipment becomes a rather relevant issue for a wide range of world ecological problems.
    Special structure of water-based fuel has already passed the trials and is currently being certified both in Russia and abroad. Production principles of special structure of water were published in the open press. It has also been expertise by such notable foreign certification centres such as Swiss company SGS, South Korean State Institute of Petroleum Quality and other world certification bodies. Technology engineers have undertaken rounds of talks with business representatives from the United Kingdom, South Korea, Israel, Switzerland, Chile, Republic of South Africa and India. These talks were aimed at furthering launch of the first boiler fuel production facilities. Representatives from energy companies in question were demonstrated new fuel production unit, as well as given fuel samples for subsequent analysis. Documentary films were also made.
    Economic community was presented by a unique chance to provide the world market with a finished high-tech product. This product combines previously mutually exclusive fuel properties – extremely low production costs and exceptional ecological parameters.
    The move of the industrial world in the direction suggested would completely obviate ecological accidents such as the one we are currently dealing with in the Gulf of Mexico. Licenses for the production of such fuel should be offered equally to all member states of the United Nations.
    The developers of the new type of fuel are prepared to hand over to the United Nations the basic right to produce such fuel.