Energy secretary tells oil industry to look skyward and play copycat

Engineers hoping to boost the safety of offshore drilling technology should draw inspiration from the airline industry, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said today.

Airplanes already employ basic warning systems and monitoring equipment that is lacking on even the most advanced deep-water drilling rigs, he said.

For instance, Chu noted that after triggering landing gear, pilots get notifications that the wheels have actually deployed — but there is no similar guidance when rams close on blowout preventers.

Some cockpit panels are designed to serve as “technical aids during critical times,” effectively steering pilots’ attention to important tasks, such as when planes descend. They could do the same, in the case of wells, when cement barriers are tested, Chu said.

“Those sorts of things should be, in my opinion, rudimentary,” Chu said. “These are just examples of things where I hope the government can work with the oil industry in deciding what works, what is sensible and what is not unnecessary regulation but will actually improve safety.”

Chu, a Nobel Prize winner and a self-professed science nerd, made his comments during a federal government forum on oil spill response, hosted by his Energy Department and the Department of the Interior.

Regulators, government scientists and oil company executives are huddling in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster to discuss how the country can better respond to future spills.

Chu said he hoped the vulnerabilities revealed by the Gulf Coast disaster would unleash a massive engineering initiative focused on redesigning diagnostic tools, warning systems, remote vehicles and other equipment that would boost the safety of offshore drilling.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar insisted that the safe resumption of offshore drilling depends on stepping up those skills and eliminating the gap between drilling technology and the capability to respond to oil spills.

Ret. Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the oil spill, said the government and industry need to design containment systems that can be integrated with the way the oil is produced in the Gulf — with crude being delivered to shore by pipelines, instead of tankers.

Allen said the industry and the government developed a bad case of “amnesia” about five years after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in 1989 — and a surge of investment in oil spill research and development withered.

“We basically got complete amnesia about R&D — to really fund it and stay ahead at the same time that deep-water drilling” was progressing, Allen said.