Sorry State of Affairs
Gulf of Mexico oil spill report blames industry and regulators
A sorry catalogue of technical, safety and regulatory failures all contributed to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to an interim independent report commissioned by the US Department of the Interior and published today.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill began on 20 April when an uncontrolled release of oil and gas from an underwater well caused an explosion that engulfed the Deepwater Horizon rig, killing 11 crewmen on board. The leak continued until 15 July, releasing about 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, the largest accidental marine oil spill in history.
The report highlights a number of failures that led to the accident. It says the well had not been properly sealed with cement and that this allowed oil and gas to escape. BP personnel also ignored warning signs from several tests that ought to have alerted them to the problems with the well. And BP failed to spot the leak quickly after it had occurred.
The panel of experts who wrote the report added that it had not yet had time to work out why the blowout preventer, a giant valve on the seafloor which should have stopped the flow of oil as a measure of last resort, failed to activate.
One incident that is emblematic of the problems occurred on 8 March, a month before the accident, when BP discovered that drilling fluid had leaked into rocks 5000 metres below the sea floor instead of returning to the surface via a pipe. The leak caused the pressure in the well to drop, allowing oil and gas to flow uncontrolled into the well bore.
This type of “near miss” should alert companies to imminent danger and lead to more detailed tests, the report says. Instead, BP pressed on with its efforts to drill and seal the well, ready for the commercial extraction of oil and gas.
Many of the panel’s conclusions mirror those reached by BP’s internal investigation into the disaster. But these were confined largely to engineering and technical issues, whereas the new report says that broader safety and regulatory lapses were also to blame. It says these occurred within BP, its contractors and the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the government agency responsible for issuing drilling permits.
The report says, for example, that the standards for education, training and professional certification in the oil industry are lower than those in other hazardous industries, such as nuclear power generation and chemical manufacturing. For instance, Deepwater Horizon employees received mostly on-the-job training and short courses in well control instead of long-term, cohesive training.
The report also points the finger at the MMS, which lacked a formal training and certification programme for its well inspectors. Nor did the agency certify blowout preventers, but instead allowed companies like BP to certify the equipment themselves.
To combat these problems, the panel said it will study new methods of oversight to prevent companies cutting costs at the expense of safety. Panellists will also examine international approaches to regulation and oversight, including the approaches adopted by the UK following the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster that killed 167 men when a rig exploded in the North Sea off the Scottish coast.
Currently, the sheer number of rules that the US imposes on oil and gas companies makes them difficult to enforce. Under the UK’s approach, companies applying for a permit must illustrate how they would respond to a disaster at every turn. That shifts responsibility – and liability – from government to industry.
The panel’s final report should be available in July 2011.