Human errors account for 80% of offshore accidents, exec says

HOUSTON – Four of every five major offshore accidents are caused by human errors, highlighting the need to make safety the backbone of any offshore company’s corporate culture, an Anadarko Petroleum executive said Monday.

“You can’t fix stupid,” said Jim Raney, director of engineering and technology at Anadarko. “What’s the answer? A culture of safety. It has to be through leadership and supported through procedures — a safety management system.”

The other 20 percent of offshore accidents are caused by mechanical or structural failures.

Raney spoke during an offshore safety panel at the inaugural event of the Ocean Energy Safety Institute at the University of Houston on Monday. The OESI was formed by three Texas universities and originally planned by regulators after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

New safety regulations and even the industry’s own risk assessments on oil and gas operations, he said, aren’t enough if oil companies don’t take action on what they learn. Oil companies should not just file 1,000-page reports with regulators “and say ‘we did it!’” Raney said. “Where’s the call to action? That’s where it’s deficient” in the offshore industry.

Risk assessments — always imperative to offshore operations — allow companies to outline all the different scenarios that could occur during drilling or other operations. But in an odd way, risk assessments can be detrimental to oil companies’ development of safety cultures beacause, once they’re complete, operators believe they’ve done all the work they needed to do, he said.

“It’s not sufficient by itself,” he said. “Are our problems in tools? Are our problem in reliability of structures? No, our problems are in people. The issue is doing the right thing at the right time.”

To the mattresses: Offshore safety might have a link to comfort

Ro Lokken, chief offshore engineer for Exxon Mobil Corp., said decision-making on risk assessment has gone all the way up the corporate ladder to the upper echelons of the C-suite for more than 25 years. For instance, Exxon Mobil’s chief executive has previously made decisions on whether company workers could enter countries where the security levels were extremely low.

And offshore oil production operations, Lokken said, have become so complex for operators over the years that they defy the common misconception that safety processes and procedures need only apply to offshore drilling.

For example, oil companies must ensure the safety while they are integrating their facilities. They have to ensure well integrity, operations at multiple reservoirs all the way up through production platforms, he said.

“There’s a lot involved when we talk about managing risks. It’s not just the drilling side of it,” Lokken said.

Lokken gave the example of one of Exxon Mobil’s offshore operations in West Africa, where the company manages 32 surface wells and a tension leg platform that processes 250,000 barrels per day, multiple reservoirs and export systems.

The consequences for getting it wrong are massive for oil companies, said Tad Patzek, chairman of the petroleum engineering and geosystems department at the University of Texas. Imagine, he said, if the Macondo blowout in 2010 had happened to a company with smaller balance sheets like Statoil or Eni.

In a rough estimation, Patzek pegged the possible amount BP will ultimately pay for the oil spill at $50 billion. Many oil companies would be hard-pressed to pay that amount and not cut deep into their assets, he said.

“The stakes in this game are absolutely enormous, so we have to be very careful about what we do and how we do it,” Patzek said.