Macondo: the lessons we learned

James Watson
Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In a perceptive and timely contribution to the ongoing Macondo debate, US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement director James Watson spelled out the key lessons learned from the disaster in a Houston Chronicle opinion piece last month. This what he had to say. 

Two years ago, as the crew of the Deepwater Horizon drilled into a massive new oil find deep under the Gulf of Mexico, the seemingly unthinkable happened: one of the most technologically advanced drill rigs in the world, valued at $560 million and commanded by professionals and engineers with decades of training, exploded and sunk after a series of catastrophic failures. 

For 90 days during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I was the federal on-scene coordinator for what was the largest government response to an environmental disaster ever mobilized. Like the thousands of others who deployed, I will never forget the sacrifices that so many Americans made in the battle to protect the Gulf Coast, save beaches and marshes, and stop the flow of oil.

But above all else, those we remember most are the 11 men who were killed and the 17 who were injured when the rig exploded. And there is no lesson more important to take from Deepwater Horizon than the understanding that the safety of the men and women in the offshore energy industry must come first every day, on every rig, on every platform and with every decision. No exceptions.

The US government, under the leadership of President Obama and secretary of the interior Ken Salazar, has undertaken the most significant reforms to offshore energy safety in history. Today, as this administration continues to take an all-of-theabove approach to American energy, offshore drilling activities are back at the levels prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But industry is now required to meet strong new safety standards. We’re making sure it’s done safely and responsibly. But there is still work to be done.

New standards

Because of these new reforms, companies must meet new standards on everything from how wells are designed and the cement is tested to how they must manage the risks to workers on drilling rigs and production platforms. These sweeping changes build on the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizontragedy, and industry is being held accountable for following these standards.

Government has also become far more effective in ensuring that industry is following the rules of the road. I now lead a new, independent agency – the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) – established by Salazar with the single mission of enforcing high standards for worker safety and environmental protection.

The aggressive pace of reform since the Deepwater Horizon is remarkable, but my agency has much more work to do. In particular, over the coming months, we will be implementing new, commonsense safety advances in three fundamental areas.

First, we are completing the final Drilling Safety Rule that was issued as an interim, emergency rule immediately following the Deepwater Horizon. We will also be finalizing a rule that provides additional requirements for companies to implement their Safety & Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) programs. Known as SEMS 2, this rule will further enhance the measures put in place under the Workplace Safety Rule implemented after the oil spill.

Second, we need to usher in a new generation of blowout preventers, which was one of the key pieces of equipment to fail during Deepwater Horizon. We have already improved the testing and certification requirements for blowout preventers over the last two years. Now, with the last of the investigation reports completed, we will be proposing new rules for how blowout preventers are designed, how they must perform and how they must be maintained over their lifespans.

With the help of leading technical experts and scientists, I believe we can accelerate the new rules and speed the deployment of these critical safety technologies.

Third, I believe that offshore exploration and production operations – much like commercial aircraft – are now so complex that the traditional, ‘snap shot’ examination of the adequacy of equipment or procedures cannot guard against equipment or human failure.

In other words, we not only need to look at whether a complicated piece of equipment works today, but also whether it is being built and maintained to perform to its design over its entire lifecycle.

It is similar to the expectation we have of airline engines, for example, for which manufacturers must prescribe when their products must be serviced and at what point an aging engine poses too great a risk to fly. Likewise, we need to ensure that companies have put in place management systems that prioritize safe practices – every day, and in every way.

Implementing these kinds of changes to improve worker safety may appear to be common sense now, but it is only that way because of the extent and cost of the catastrophe two years ago.

So let us never forget the pain, the loss, and the sacrifices that so many Americans made in a moment of crisis. And let us never forget that the American energy that powers our country comes from the hands, minds and talents of men and women who are daughters, sons, fathers and mothers.

Their safety must, and will, always come first. Houston Chronicle 2012

Categories: North America Gulf of Mexico Regulations Safety & Security

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