BP’s strategy for returning to the Gulf of Mexico is going according to plan.
Getting back in the Gulf has been the company’s focus almost from the moment the burning wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon slipped below the water’s surface, and everything it has done during the past year has been designed to make it possible.
Last week, the company took another step. Less than a year after its disastrous Macondo well was capped, it sent a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement outlining a series of voluntary performance standards that BP hopes will prove that it’s changed its ways since unleashing the worst oil spill in U.S. waters.
Technically, of course, BP has been back in the Gulf for months. As I wrote in March, it’s the majority owner of the well that got the first new drilling permit since the disaster, but BP isn’t the operator.
Now, the company is itching to run its own projects again. Its voluntary standards, though, are an underwhelming response to more than a decade of operational and maintenance failings marked by more than two dozen worker deaths and scores of debilitating injuries.
Despite BP’s repeated promises to change, it hasn’t. And the voluntary standards it now offers in hopes of unlocking its lucrative prospects in the Gulf are tinged with a chillingly familiar sense of déjà vu.
In the past year, BP has worked diligently to cast the accident as an industry problem, as something that grew not out of its own culture and poor oversight, but something that could have happened to any drilling company.
Its new standards include a second set of blind shear rams to help seal a well if a problem arises, improved testing of blowout preventers, better review of cement tests and an enhanced spill response program.
These are all good steps, and, like everything else BP does, they are carefully calculated. They are things that all companies operating in the Gulf should consider after the Macondo disaster. They also are largely directed outwardly — watching over the cement formulas and blowout preventers designed by others, for example.
The procedures, though, aren’t all that stringent. Some of them BP already has to follow in other countries in which it operates. Yet for all its talk of a companywide focus on safety, BP isn’t applying its new standards to all the company’s operations. It letter referred merely to its Gulf operations.
That’s reminiscent of the aftermath of the Texas City refinery explosion, when BP chose to apply the recommendations of an independent investigator only to its U.S. refining operations, not to other aspects of the company.
More change needed
What’s missing is the same thing that always seems to get overlooked when BP is mopping up after one of its operating failures — a restructuring of its internal decision-making and oversight.
What’s more, some of the “new” procedures are things that BP had claimed to be doing as far back as 2009. That’s when the head of its Gulf operations told Congress about new technologies it had supposedly adopted, such as real-time well-control techniques, an action the company now says it implemented after the Macondo accident.
Once again, it seems, BP’s actions are years behind its words.
Even as it was preparing to send its letter last week, a BP-operated platform in the North Sea off Norway erupted in flames in what
the company itself described as a “serious incident.” Then, just days later, BP experienced yet another pipeline leak in Alaska during a maintenance operation, causing a release of methanol and oily water.
By themselves, these incidents might not say much about a company’s ability to drill safely. But with BP, the pattern is all too familiar. So are the repeated promises, issued by the past three CEOs, that it will change how it operates.
It hasn’t yet. Nor has it offered any convincing evidence that it will.
Loren Steffy is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is at http://blogs.chron.com/lorensteffy. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/lsteffy.