Exxon Mobil CEO zeroes in on risk

Exxon Mobil Corp. is targeting employee habits in its effort to improve computer security, which has become “extraordinarily important” to preventing disasters and safety risks, CEO Rex Tillerson said.

In an exclusive interview with FuelFix, Tillerson said the company is educating its employees on safe computer behavior, just as it has done for its physical operations.

Computers controlling massive oil company systems, including those on offshore rigs, have been targeted by online attacks and are especially vulnerable to infection with malicious software that could disrupt operations and potentially lead to a major disaster, the Chronicle reported recently.

Many problems that could lead to infections, however, result from imprudent actions from workers who interact with critical systems.

“At the end, it all comes back to people, regardless of how great the technology is and regardless of how much the technology enables us to do things without the human hand maybe touching as much,” Tillerson said.

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He said the company’s executives are studying human behavior to understand better why workers sometimes make bad choices and how to stop them.

Tillerson was in town to receive the National Safety Council’s 2013 Green Cross for Safety medal, recognizing the Irving-based oil company’s “comprehensive commitment to safety excellence.”

The interview before the awards dinner was limited to safety- and security-related issues. Topics ranged from Tillerson’s personal experience with an oil field fatality early in his career to last week’s rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline in Arkansas.

Computer habits

Exxon Mobil is the world’s second-largest publicly traded company after Apple and is the nation’s largest oil and natural gas producer.

Concern over computer security and potential problems resulting from security breaches has led the company to expand its focus on employee behavior to include computer habits, Tillerson said.

“When you introduce new technology, it still has to be managed by people, so people have to understand that technology,” Tillerson said. “They have to understand its capabilities and, more importantly, they have to understand its limitations. So as technology continues to be advanced and introduced into everything that we do, whether it’s computer-related or some other capability, people are still the interface with that technology. So you have to continue to manage the person.”

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He said the company is teaching workers to recognize and avoid behavior that could compromise computer systems.

Computer security professionals say that interactions among computers through USB drives, compact disks, or connected laptops – even those used by system managers – often lead to infections as malicious software spreads from contaminated devices or computers to larger networks.

“As good as this technology is, you still are requiring people to ensure its proper application,” Tillerson said.

The company’s overall efforts to promote a safety culture often draw upon past decisions that led to deaths or disaster, he said.

A worker cleans up oil in Mayflower, Ark., on April 1, 2013, days after an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured and spewed oil over lawns and roadways. (AP Photo/Jeannie Nuss)

One such incident happened when Tillerson was a young facilities engineering supervisor working at a well in Galveston Bay. A high-pressure line came loose and hit one of the men working at the site, throwing him into the water, where he drowned.

“That has a big impression on you when you are 27 years old and you realize people get killed with the things we do,” said Tillerson, now 61. “And when you have to go talk to someone’s family about that, it makes a big impression on you. I think that experience was the earliest experience I had where suddenly I had this awareness that we’re managing a lot of risk out here.”

Exxon Valdez

Though Exxon Mobil has had safety guidelines and procedures for decades, they didn’t prevent the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaska coast in 1989, and that disaster led to renewed safety emphasis and constant reminders of unacceptable actions, Tillerson said.

“It was a very simple mistake that somebody made,” he said. “You know, the guy driving the boat got out of the lane, hit the reef, and huge, huge consequences. And the leadership of the corporation at that time, I think, and all of us were affected profoundly by it, to say, gosh, how can something so simple happen?

“We realized we train people, we give them rules, we give them procedures and then we just kind of expect people to follow those,” he said. “Well, so much of safe operations risk management is much more comprehensive than that.”

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The company developed a system that places risk analysis at the center of everything its employees do, Tillerson said.

The company regularly rehearses how it would respond to a problem, in order to reduce risks to the company and the public, he said.

The rehearsals came into play in the aftermath of the rupture and oil spill from Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline in central Arkansas last week, Tillerson said.

“I think it’s an example that we can’t eliminate all risks,” Tillerson said. “This one, I think, was managed reasonably well, as regrettable as it is that it happened. But I am very proud of the response our people took when the line ruptured.”

The rupture of the Pegasus pipeline, which was installed in 1940, has damaged soil, killed at least seven ducks and oiled other animals, and caused the evacuation of nearly two dozen homes, Exxon Mobil reported Wednesday.

Emergency responders, working with the company, were at the site in Mayflower, 30 minutes after a problem was detected, the company said. It reported recovering about 12,000 barrels of water and oil.

‘We’re helping them’

Videos posted online after the incident showed oil flowing through a neighborhood and pooling on lawns and roads, as well as flowing into a storm drain.

The air quality directly around areas where emergency crews are working has been deemed harmful and has required breathing equipment for cleanup personnel, Exxon Mobil said. Workers have made progress in clearing standing oil, and the company said it is developing plans to return residents to their homes.

“It appears that it certainly inconvenienced some residents, which we’re sorry about that, but we’re helping them,” Tillerson said. “We’ll restore all of the damage that they may have suffered, and we’re prepared and we’ve got a procedure to begin to excavate the line so we can find out what really happened.”