Offshore drilling companies need to take a “system safety” approach to anticipating and managing possible dangers at every level of operation — from ensuring the integrity of wells to designing blowout preventers that function “under all foreseeable conditions.”
In addition, an enhanced regulatory approach should combine strong industry safety goals with mandatory oversight at critical points during drilling operations said a new report from the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council.
The lack of effective safety management among the companies involved in the Macondo Well-Deepwater Horizon disaster is evident in the multiple flawed decisions that led to the blowout and explosion, which killed 11 workers and produced the biggest accidental oil spill in U.S. history, the report said. Additionally, regulators failed to exercise effective oversight.
“The need to maintain domestic sources of oil is great, but so is the need to protect the lives of those who work in the offshore drilling industry as well as protect the viability of the Gulf of Mexico region,” said Donald C. Winter, former secretary of the Navy, professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Industry and regulators need to include a factual assessment of all the risks in deepwater drilling operations in their decisions and make the overall safety of the many complex systems involved a top priority.”
Despite challenging geological conditions, alternative techniques and processes were available that could have been used to prepare the exploratory Macondo well safely for “temporary abandonment” — sealing it until the necessary infrastructure could support hydrocarbon production, the report said.
Also, several signs of an impending blowout ended up missed by management and crew, resulting in a failure to take action in a timely manner. Despite numerous past warnings of potential failures of blowout preventer (BOP) systems, industry and regulators had a “misplaced trust” in the ability of these systems to act as fail-safe mechanisms in the event of a well blowout.
BOP systems commonly in use, which includes the system used by the Deepwater Horizon, have not undergone enough testing to operate in the dynamic conditions that occurred during the accident.
Operating companies should have ultimate responsibility and accountability for well integrity, the report said, because only they possess the ability to view all aspects of well design and operation. The drilling contractor should be responsible and accountable for the operation and safety of the offshore equipment.