Offshore drillers could learn from aviation

They did, in fact, ground the planes.

After the recent problems with batteries on the Boeing 787, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all of the aircraft flown by U.S. carriers removed from service.

Rather than using commercial aviation as an excuse – “they don’t ground all planes when one crashes” was a common retort to the drilling moratorium that followed the Deepwater Horizon disaster – the offshore energy industry should use it as a model for improving safety.

Among safety experts, the exploding batteries aboard the Dreamliners are known as a leading risk indicator. In other words, they could be a sign of a bigger problem.

No one lost their lives in a Dreamliner incident. No one was injured. No one has said the aircraft is unsafe, and the cause of the battery problems – one burst into flames on an empty plane at a gate in Tokyo – remains under investigation.

The only U.S. carrier flying 787s was United Airlines, whose chief executive, Jeff Smisek, praised the probe and said he remains confident in the plane’s design.

While the 787 problems didn’t result in all planes being grounded, the FAA did determine that the leading indicators posed enough threat to public safety to take that model out of service.

Few industries have assembled more information about human and mechanical fallibility than commercial aviation, which is why air travel is the safest form of transportation. All that data has created a process that helps the industry spot and respond to leading risk indicators before they become catastrophes.

Public confidence

And the transparency of the process reinforces public confidence. The National Transportation Safety Board, the independent U.S. agency that investigates aviation accidents, has provided frequent updates on its investigation.

By contrast, the energy industry has long resisted such public scrutiny, even though in the time since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, the economic impact of offshore accidents, not to mention the potential loss of life, has underscored the public’s concern for drilling safety. New regulations were adopted, but they lack transparency.

No independent agency, for example, collects or reviews leading risk indicators. In most cases, the data isn’t even publicly available. If the energy industry ran an airline, 787s would remain in the skies, the potential safety risks hidden behind claims that because they haven’t fallen from the sky, they must be safe.

“Transparency – or the lack thereof – is a major defect in our industry,” said David Pritchard, a Houston petroleum engineer and drilling safety expert. “Competition is the major excuse used to limit sharing of data and information. Process safety’s assurance should not be left to competitive drivers.”

The ‘near misses’

Obviously, not every incident requires a public hearing, but every incident should be recorded and made publicly available in a searchable database.

Only then can the industry know how many “near misses” it’s had. How many other problems with malfunction- ing blowout preventers, for example, pre- dated the Deepwater Horizon accident?

The data for offshore safety is scant and general – and incomplete. In 2003, regulators proposed requiring reports for all hydrocarbon releases from offshore facilities.

The industry called the requirement too burdensome, even though many companies already compiled such information internally. In the end, operators are required to report only releases that result in the shutdown of the rig or platform.

The number of those incidents never exceeded 17 a year in the past five years, according to an analysis by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. As of 2010, the Gulf had 7,000 active leases, 3,600 structures and as many as 600 wells were drilled, all involving hundreds of operators and contractors.

Most companies, in other words, didn’t have releases that resulted in shutdown, so the data isn’t statistically significant enough to establish trends or set targets for improving safety.

Bird strikes

By contrast, you or I can go online and search a massive database of aviation incident reports, from serious accidents to bird strikes. You can sort that data by state, by airport, by aircraft type, and even the species of bird.

(In the past year, 1,037 bird strikes were reported in Texas, including military and business jets.)

The probe into the 787 battery failures continued this week, and until the cause of the leading risk indicator is determined and fixed, the planes will remain on the ground.

Meanwhile, out in the Gulf, companies are flying blind.