Commentary: Looking past isolated incidents to see the big picture of safety in oil and gas

If things go badly in the oilfield, there’s the further potential for them to go REALLY badly.  Incidents such as the Exxon Valdez spill, the Piper Alpha fire, and the Macondo blowout show that as an industry there is always an underlying risk we have to manage, and that we must accept as a society in exchange for our use of hydrocarbons.

Every time an incident does happen, people are outraged, and rightfully so:  I can’t imagine how I would feel if I lost someone close to me, or if my home or community was heavily damaged.  After this initial outcry come renewed, even stronger than usual protests against the industry, and these incidents are used as arguments to paint the entire industry as negligent and inherently unsafe.

As a Young Professional who still has decades left in this business, surrounded by peers who I know do their best to respect the environment in which their operations are located, the view that oil & gas cannot be produced safely bothers me, because it’s untrue, and the idea that we can immediately do without oil & gas is unrealistic.

Unfortunately, despite the criticisms that have been leveled against the oil & gas industry for years (decades even) I don’t think this has been adequately discussed with the public at large; today I’d like to offer my own perspective on the matter.

It has always frustrated me that the industry keeps relatively quiet following high profile incidents.  Rather than take control of the narrative and seize the chance to provide as much clarity as possible, it tends to fall back on itself.  This allows other groups to shape events to their advantage, and the damage to the industry’s reputation grows larger and lasts longer.

I’m encouraged by the fact that recently some very influential people have also started to speak up about this.  In fact, Jeff Spath, the incoming 2014 President of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, had some very candid words I want to transmit to everyone, ESPECIALLY those who are skeptical of the industry’s capability to do work safely and efficiently.   When asked in the September 2013 issue of the “Journal of Petroleum Technology” about the best way to educate the public about energy, Dr. Spath replied:

“Let me start by saying we got off on the wrong foot.  When the movies came out about hydraulic fracturing and the rhetoric got hot and heavy, what did the oil and gas industry do?  We, as we typically do as engineers, said, “That’s not right, here are the facts, you guys are wrong,” and we got defensive.  And guess what?  They found one well out of a million in Pennsylvania somewhere, which for completely different reasons, was leaking gas.  And critics said, “Engineers, you’re not so smart.  Here is an example.”  So we have to level with the public. We have to agree with them, first of all, that there are potential hazards involved in producing oil and gas, as with any form of energy.  And we have to prove to them that we are addressing those potential hazards.”

The associative statement that “because this incident happened, the whole industry must be rotten” is untrue, and frankly unfair to the vast majority of people who strive to do their work to the highest levels of professionalism.  Put another way:  does an isolated accident every represent the totality of the industry?

Absolutely not.

Certainly, the accidents I mentioned were terrible, but they do not represent the values of the thousands of professionals working alongside me.  The fact is, if the oilfield of the past lacked the current sophisticated monitoring systems and decades of hindsight, today’s oilfield and its Young Professional leaders not only have these advantages, but also are determined to do their best to ensure that none of these incidents are ever repeated.

Now, I want to be abundantly clear here:  I don’t want to gloss over what happened in the past, and a loss of life or an environmental incident is NEVER excusable.  In fact, my Young Professional colleagues work for companies who from day one do their best to impress on them the fact that “zero incidents” is the only goal worth striving for.  There is not one colleague I know of that will brush off an accident by saying “well, that’s just part of the job”, and if there is someone out there who thinks that way, I doubt they will last very long in this industry.

Quite the contrary:  every incident is a preventable one, provided that operations are adequately planned, and personnel is adequately trained and equipped.  If a failure occurs, it’s an issue of people, culture or attitude, NOT an inherent lack of technical understanding.

During my time at Rice, I took a class in machine design, and on the first day, the professor didn’t dictate a bunch of equations or introduce some new theorem.  Rather, he had us watch a show from the History Channel called “Engineering Disasters”.  I’m paraphrasing a bit here (this happened about eight years ago…), but his words to us were to the effect of “People cause accidents, and in your field those accidents can be catastrophic, I want to show you what happens if you don’t do your job responsibly”.

I remember the incidents covered were Aloha Airlines flight 243, and the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse in Kansas City, Missouri.  None of these accidents happened because of a lack of technology.  Rather, the causes came down to inadequate procedures or oversight (proper maintenance of an aircraft, or proper load calculations).

Another very well known expert, Robert Bea (who helped investigate the Macondo incident) has codified engineering catastrophes with the following “equation”:  A + B = C.

Quoting from the linked interview:

A is natural hazards, things like hurricanes, gases and liquids under pressure that are extremely volatile…They’re natural, and there’s nothing unusual about them.  B is organizational hazards:  people and their hubris, their arrogance, their greed.  The real killer is indolence.”

So what to make of situations in oil & gas when things do go wrong?

The fact is that sometimes, people just exercise poor judgment:  the intent is not necessarily malicious, but the consequences can still be grave.  To the extent that we can anticipate that people aren’t perfect and will sometimes make poor decisions, we can “engineer out” as much as possible the likelihood of a disaster occurring.

Ultimately though, preventing further incidents does come down to people:  companies can set up the most rigorous procedures imaginable, but people have to follow them.  I definitely don’t think it’s fair to say that “hubris, arrogance and greed” are the root cause of every negative outcome in the oil & gas industry, and the aftermath of three events I mentioned at the beginning of the article are proof that the industry CAN look inwardly and improve itself:  Exxon has developed an extremely stringent, process-oriented work culture, the Cullen inquiry prompted important changes in North Sea regulations, and the oversight process for the Gulf of Mexico has been changed substantially  since Macondo.

The world consumes about 89 million barrels of oil per day.  That’s a fact, and unless people are willing to give up completely the comforts and advantages that come from using hydrocarbons, that number will likely grow.  Let’s absolutely pursue alternatives, but for now, oil & gas are the cheapest, most efficient way to power the world.

As with any industrial process, there will be risks to producing this oil & gas.  I choose to see the glass half-full and recognize that there are very bright people working every day to make sure those risks are understood and mitigated as much as possible.

I hope the readers of this column will join me in sharing that view.