The six-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is upon us, but the offshore regulatory changes made thus far do not do enough to place the onus on industry to reduce risk, nor do they sufficiently empower the regulator to proactively oversee industry’s efforts to prevent another catastrophe, federal investigators said.
“[A] culture of minimal regulatory compliance continues to exist in the Gulf of Mexico and risk reduction continues to prove elusive,” six years after the catastrophic April 20, 2010, event that killed 11 workers and caused the biggest oil spill in the history of offshore drilling, said investigators at the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in a report released late last week.
While the Macondo blowout occurred under the direction of Transocean and BP, it affected the oil and gas industry worldwide by demonstrating that high-hazard risk management continues to be a challenge in the offshore environment.
A complex interplay of physical, operational, and organizational barriers failed that day, sending oil and gas from deep below the ocean floor onto the drilling rig, triggering explosions and ensuing fire that left 11 of the 126 workers dead and critically injured at least 17 others.
The final volumes of the staff report await a board vote and include proposed safety recommendations to the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the American Petroleum Institute, the Ocean Energy Safety Institute, and the Sustainability Account Standards Board.
“Offshore regulations in the US have been moving toward a performance-based approach, but in order for the changes to be effective, there are key regulatory attributes BSEE needs to pursue,” said CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland. “These include an adaptable oversight approach that continuously strives to reduce risk, proactive tools to evaluate and monitor safety performance, and meaningful worker participation. Successful safety and risk management will take a tripartite effort by industry, BSEE, and the workforce. Ultimately, this will require a culture shift for everyone.”
The Board previously released two volumes of findings on failures of the primary well control equipment, the blowout preventer, and safety management deficiencies by Transocean and BP. The drilling operation was nearly finished and Deepwater Horizon would have departed and given way to a production installation to extract the huge reservoirs of oil and gas BP had discovered 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
As the well’s operator, BP designed the well, but most individuals employed on the Deepwater Horizon worked for the drilling contractor, Transocean, who owned the offshore facility and executed the well plan.
Risk Policies in Place
The CSB’s investigators found both companies had corporate risk management policies more rigorous than what regulations required, but those policies were not in play at Macondo. The investigators said changes are necessary to offshore regulations and guidance to clarify roles and responsibilities. Ultimately, current BSEE safety regulations do not place sufficient safety responsibility on the party with primary control of the risk during drilling operations.
Following the 2010 incident the Department of Interior reorganized how it regulated offshore drilling and production, splitting the former Minerals Management Service (MMS) into two separate branches, one to sell offshore oil leases (the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) and the other to enforce safety and protect the environment (the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement).
The new Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement quickly put additional regulations in place, but the CSB found they are lacking key concepts needed to more effectively reduce risks.
“[R]ecent changes to the U.S. offshore regulator’s organization and regulations, particularly the establishment of SEMS [the Safety and Environmental Management System], do not go far enough to ensure effective industry management and control of major hazards or prevent possible future Macondo-type incidents,” the draft report found.
In fact, the investigators said, many of the risk management policies Transocean and BP had in place before the disaster would have satisfied the new post-Macondo federal requirements. A BSEE audit found some companies are still placing more emphasis on documenting regulatory compliance than actually managing risks.
The draft report states the new regulations establish activity-based safety and environmental management system elements, but lack risk reduction requirements and did not address the human and organizational factors that set the stage for accidents.
“One individual did not cause the Macondo event. A multitude of decisions and actions up and down the organizational chains of both BP and Transocean led to this disaster,” said Lead Investigator and Human Factors Specialist Cheryl MacKenzie.
“Zero incidents for a day, month, or even years do not preclude a company from facing a potentially catastrophic incident tomorrow,” MacKenzie said. “Compliance isn’t a paper exercise and it isn’t a fixed target. Circumstances – the work environment, technology and the workforce – inevitably change. Companies’ risk reduction efforts must keep up, and BSSE must continually engage industry in proactive ways to improve offshore safety.”
CSB investigators found the crew did what made sense to them at the time, influenced by organizational practices and expectations, previous experiences, and normal human psychological processes. Seemingly inconsequential decisions made throughout the day of the blowout by management and workers culminated in unanticipated loss of well control the crew did not anticipate.
The CSB’s report emphasizes the need for an assessment of human performance expectations and thorough consideration of human factors as they relate to safety systems intended to control or mitigate hazards. Of particular importance and highlighted in the CSB’s report is the need for social and cognitive skills training for improved interactions and decision-making, in conjunction with technical competencies. The dynamic and complex offshore work environment must end up considered in order to overcome cognitive biases and other mental traps that may influence decision-making.
“In the aftermath of a catastrophe, the individuals immediately involved in the activities that precipitated the event often receive much of the focus and subsequent blame,” the draft report said, but the problem really rests with companies’ entire safety culture.
“In the complex offshore drilling industry, the key to ensuring safety is not just teaching people procedures, but how to adapt and be flexible during pressure-packed emergencies,” MacKenzie said. “Industry’s focus must shift from correcting individual ‘errors’ identified post-incident to a systematic approach for managing human factors.”