Industry’s progress on offshore safety still draws skepticism

WASHINGTON – Two years after the Gulf of Mexico spill, the oil and gas industry continues to pour millions of dollars into efforts aimed at actually boosting offshore safety and at convincing regulators and the public that it can police itself.

Not everyone is convinced. The industry has made substantive moves – including upgraded spill response systems – but investigators who probed the disaster and others say there’s still a long way to go.

“If a similar disaster happened today, there’s no guarantee that we wouldn’t get the same result,” said David Pettit, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

BP’s Macondo well blew out on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and pouring millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf.

Lawmakers held hearings and promised action, but even the least controversial measures remain bogged down in politically charged fights over exploration in federal waters.

Regulators quickly overhauled agencies that oversee offshore drilling and imposed new mandates for subsea wells. But the timetable has slipped on plans for a broad new safety regime.

Oil companies cooperated to develop systems for containing blown-out subsea wells, but they have not been tested aggressively in realistic emergency conditions.

“When we were looking at the spill and watching it continue to gush into the ocean uncontrollably and shared that feeling of helplessness we had two years ago, I’m sure at the time everybody knew for a fact that when this was all over things were going to change, that we’d improve safety,” said Jacqueline Savitz, a senior scientist with the conservancy group Oceana. “Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to be.”

Others have a brighter outlook. William Reilly, co-chairman of the presidential commission that investigated the disaster, said that while improvements are “a work in progress,” the efforts by government and industry reduce the risk.

“In the event of another catastrophe – which a lot of these moves will make very unlikely – the world, the industry and the government all will be better prepared than they were two years ago,” Reilly said.

A special watchdog

The Houston-based Center for Offshore Safety, created by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top trade group, is focusing on helping companies develop federally mandated Safety and Environmental Management Systems to deal with risks in drilling and production.

Charlie Williams, a top Shell scientist who heads the center, said that while companies’ names won’t be attached to them, the results of those audits will be aired publicly and used to track performance.

At the same time, Williams said, the center plans a database to track incidents offshore, part of an effort to identify early indicators of problems.

The center has held a workshop on those leading and lagging indicators; another workshop focused on the ways company executives can emphasize safety when visiting rigs and drilling operations.

Williams said the center is designed to guard against complacency as the Gulf disaster fades with time, by being a clearinghouse for safety information and industry collaboration.

The center will push companies to focus on process safety, not just on preventing small accidents, such as slips, trips and falls.

“It’s all about maintaining this high level of awareness — consistently, every second and every minute and every hour of every day,” Williams said. “It’s easy to say ‘we’re going to put no-slip stairs everywhere.’ And it’s easy to fall into the trap of getting really focused on that — which is important — but lose your focus on getting good standards and good work processes that make sure we are following the standards and making decisions in a way that supports safety.”

Randall Luthi, the head of the National Ocean Industries Association and a former director of the now-defunct Minerals Management Service that regulated offshore drilling, said the center will help ensure safety and environmental management systems get attention, even as memories of the 2010 spill may fade.

“What you find is that if you don’t have an accident, it’s just in everybody’s nature (to lose) the focus,” Luthi said. “The Center for Offshore Safety will help keep that focus going, to make sure we are keeping up with the latest technology that’s available. The more you talk about something, the more likely it is to be done.”

Because of its ties to API, the center falls short of what many spill investigators recommended – a fully autonomous watchdog not be affiliated with any industry group. The API says the center is a self-supporting arm with its own member fees.

But former spill commissioner Frances Beinecke questions whether the center will be aggressive enough.

“Companies can be very insular,” she said. “That’s why I think you need enforcement and oversight inside the Interior Department, and that’s why you need a watchdog from the not-for-profit world to keep an eye on what is happening.”

In the wake of the spill, API and the International Association of Drilling Contractors collaborated to develop a new standard describing the way oil companies and drilling rig crews interact when working on wells.

The American Petroleum Institute also has updated two of its standards for offshore drilling, including one on ways to isolate the paths that oil and gas can flow through wells and another governing blowout prevention systems.

At the same time, API has poured millions into publicity campaigns and lobbying for access to more federal territory. According to disclosure forms analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics, the API spent $8.6 million lobbying in 2011.

Some spill investigators say that even if industry changes don’t come from within they may be propelled by investors who stand to take a financial hit from accidents. “They’re the ones who bore that $100 billion loss of capital at BP,” said Bob Graham, the former Florida governor who co-chaired the presidential spill probe.

Boards of directors who typically were not given information about process safety and risk management now are demanding that data.

Call for cultural change

But safety experts warn that cultural change needed to put safety at the forefront of every decision can’t come solely from the boardroom or new operational standards.

“They will not be effective over time unless the underlying culture changes,” said Nancy Leveson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and member of a government offshore advisory board.

After the spill, regulators forced companies seeking permits for new deep-water wells to prove they could contain sub-sea blowouts. That prompted two systems, developed by the Marine Well Containment Co. and Helix Well Containment Group.

But critics say that testing of the devices doesn’t offer a guarantee that they will work in an emergency.

“What they are doing in standing up these two response organizations is very positive,” Graham said. “However, the reality is that none of that has been put to the test. We don’t know whether the response capability will function as well in a real situation as it does on paper.”

After all, Graham noted, “there was a great difference between the response plans that BP submitted” prior to drilling its Macondo well and the attempts to stop the subsea gusher that took 87 days to control.

Industry officials say their readiness drills match federal requirements. “As the scope of future drilling operations might evolve, the methods of testing response readiness to contain a potential spill will evolve with them,” said Helix spokesman Cameron Wallace.

Although off-the-shelf containment systems are now readily available in the Gulf of Mexico, the industry is still responding to potentially lethal shortcomings in blowout preventers used to guard against uncontrolled surges of oil and gas. After an examination of the BOP used at the Macondo well found its powerful blades could not sever drill pipe that had been pushed askew by flowing oil and gas, a National Academy of Engineering panel insisted there was an “urgent need” to redesign the devices.

Williams acknowledged that the industry hasn’t “added a lot of new technology back into the blowout preventers,” but emphasized that “there’s a lot of new technology in development, some of it really close.”

Oil companies now have to prove to regulators that their proposed wells are designed to work with capping stacks and blowout prevention systems.

Companies also are developing new ways to make BOPs stronger and more reliable. For instance, T3 Energy Services has redesigned blades that may be able to crimp and cut drill pipe even when it is knocked off center. And National Oilwell Varco has unveiled new shear rams that are powerful enough to cut through the thick tool joints where pipes are connected.

Beinecke said she’s “seriously concerned” that BOPs haven’t undergone a top-to-bottom redesign. “The industry continues to rely on blowout preventers with a proven design defect, making many deep-water wells subject to the same failure we saw at the Macondo site.”

jennifer.dlouhy@chron.com