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This article is from the In-Depth Report BP's Gulf Oil Spill: 1 Year Later

Safety First: Major Oil Industry Reforms Needed for Continued Exploration in Extreme Environments

This past summer's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brings to the surface failures in both government and industry
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U.S. Coast Guard photo

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The fatal Deepwater Horizon drilling platform explosion and subsequent oil spill in 2010 that lasted for four months could have been prevented, according to the final report of President Obama's National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released January 11. Ultimately, the disaster stemmed from a lack of preparation—a condition that remains today—as well as mismanagement, the report states.

"Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska the same blunt response technologies—booms, dispersants and skimmers—were used, to limited effect," the seven commission members wrote in the report. "The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials…rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur."

Six weeks behind schedule and some $58 million over budget by April 20—the night of the blowout—BP, Halliburton and Transocean employees all overlooked safety and misread signs of an imminent disaster, even though Transocean had experienced an "eerily similar near-miss" at a rig in the North Sea just four months prior, according to the report. By midmorning April 22, the Deepwater Horizon had burned and sank but the oil spill was just getting started. On September 19, when the well was finally sealed permanently, at least 4.9 million barrels of petroleum had spilled.

In order to prevent such disasters in the future the Oil Spill Commission released a series of recommendations, focusing first and foremost on increasing the safety of such offshore drilling efforts, which they likened to working in space. They recommended potentially following the example of the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine safety program which, after the loss of a nuclear submarine and its crew in the 1950s, instituted the so-called SUBSAFE Program. The measures work to ensure the safety of nuclear submarines by encouraging "chronic uneasiness" in responsible officers as well as separating powers for oversight in multiple authorities—a situation the commission would like to see repeated in government regulators of the offshore oil industry, including the U.S. Department of Interior and its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, or BOEMRE (formed from the now-disbanded Minerals Management Service). In fact, the commission proposes creating a new agency to oversee offshore oil safety as well as reorganizing BOEMRE—all to be funded from fees collected as part of lease sales.

In addition, the oil industry might police itself—along the lines of the civilian nuclear power industry and its Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, set up in the wake of the near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island. That program includes safety inspections of all nuclear power plants conducted in part by employees from other power facilities, allowing their expertise to point out overlooked flaws but also to spread best practices throughout the industry. Of course, offshore oil rigs face a wider array of circumstances—and boast a wider range of technologies—than the nation's fleet of 104 nuclear reactors. And the oil industry might need to be exempted from antitrust laws to institute such a practice, the commission notes in its report.

But it is clear, according to the commission, that the safety standards set by the American Petroleum Institute—which also functions as the lobbyist for the oil industry—tend toward the "lowest common denominator," and that has a knock-on effect because Interior relies on those rules in setting its own. For its part BP appears to have chronic safety issues, including the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 and an ongoing pipeline leak in Alaska.

At the very least, the commission recommends mimicking the "safety case" mandated in North Sea drilling operations, which requires companies to plan for disaster—and not by including seals or walruses as species of concern after an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as was the case with BP's Macondo well plan. Such improved oil spill response plans, proving that oil companies have the capacity to stop an oil spill at that project should one occur, might be required as part of permit applications.

And the government and industry need to invest in research and development of technologies to aid in oil spill response—not berms, which "should not be authorized as an oil spill response" or dispersants, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should update its research on those. Rather, new technologies are required to cope with the challenges presented these days by drilling for oil in extreme conditions, such as 5,800 meters below the ocean floor. Scientists should also be allowed into spill areas like BP's promptly in order to conduct independent research as well as long-term monitoring. Many independent scientists complained that was not the case in the Gulf of Mexico during this past summer's spill.

Until such safety and science improvements can be made the commission recommends proceeding with caution, particularly in places such as the Arctic where even those efforts that worked in the Gulf of Mexico might fail due to the colder conditions. The commission also recommends that 80 percent of any Clean Water Act fines ultimately collected from BP and other responsible parties go to long-term restoration of the Gulf of Mexico, which has borne the U.S. burden of offshore oil exploration for decades.

After all, offshore oil drilling has been going on there since at least 1937 when Pure Oil and Superior Oil drilled a well 2.5 kilometers out, near Cameron, La. In fact, it is the ongoing U.S. addiction to oil, as President George W. Bush put it, that ultimately caused the Gulf oil spill. Americans suck up some 18.7 million barrels of oil a day. "It is an absolute imperative to reduce America's almost insatiable appetite for petroleum, an appetite that consumes 22 percent of petroleum worldwide," said commission co-chair, former Florida Sen. Bob Graham at a press event to release the final report. "Those numbers are not sustainable."

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