The Macondo well catastrophe occurred more than three years ago, but it continues to serve as a central reference point in any assessment of contemporary offshore drilling, not least at today’s SPE Offshore Europe keynote session, Industry Progress since Macondo.
The blowout and its severe consequences cast a harsh light on offshore drilling, an activity not previously well known to the public. In the months following the spill, the public and private sectors—sometimes separately, sometimes in collaboration—devoted enormous energy and attention to the most pressing issues raised by the incident.
Less than 60 days after Deepwater Horizon, the US government issued regulatory guidance that focused on enhancing the safety of drilling operations. The initial guidance, provided after extensive consultation with industry, addressed the need for careful review and certification of well-casing and well-cementing programs, and for the blowout preventer associated with a drilling operation to be certified and verified.
Within several months after the accident, this regulatory guidance was further elaborated in a broad set of mandatory requirements contained in a prescriptive safety regulation called the Drilling Safety Rule. At the same time, the government issued its first-ever performance-based rule, the Safety and Environmental Management System rule, which required operators to satisfy 13 separate elements, including conducting a comprehensive analysis of hazards and risks for each facility.
Thus, through regulatory guidance and two major rules, and with striking speed, the main contours of the new regulatory regime aimed at prevention were established within six months of Deepwater Horizon.
Beyond prevention, the blowout, and oil spill revealed the absence of any proven capabilities to contain a subsea blowout. It took 87 days after the spill began, and after many failed efforts and methods, before a fabricated device—a capping stack—was successfully installed on the well, stopping the flow of oil.
Based on this experience, the government mandated a requirement that offshore operators must, for all deepwater operations, demonstrate sufficient capabilities to deal with a subsea blowout. Even before the requirements were imposed, the offshore industry had formulated its own response by creating two consortia whose sole purpose was to serve as, in effect, mutual aid societies to deal with subsea blowouts—the Marine Well Containment Company and the Helix Well Containment Group. Starting in early 2011, those consortia came to be relied upon by operators to demonstrate their containment capabilities.
By the summer of 2013, after a period of adjustment immediately after Deepwater Horizon in which industry had to adjust to new requirements, and government had to learn how to apply those requirements consistently and predictably, offshore activity in the US Gulf of Mexico has returned to a very high level.
Looking back to Deepwater Horizon, the US government demonstrated an ability to swiftly upgrade safety requirements and create new containment rules; and industry showed an ability to adjust swiftly to those new requirements.
Looking to the future, offshore regulators need to aggressively enforce existing regulations, work with industry to formulate and implement appropriate new regulations that keep pace with changing technology, and not stand pat and wait for the next accident to happen.
By Michael Bromwich, managing principal at The Bromwich Group and a partner at Goodwin Procter.