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Deepwater Horizon Regulatory Failures

By W M Campbell – 12th January 2011 (Retired HSE Group Auditor, Shell International)

Regulatory Failures

As the queue begins to form of those who would sue BP and others for the failures that caused Deepwater Horizon, it appears, from the early release of the findings of the Presidential Commission published last week, that it was the negligence of multiple parties that caused the multiple failures.  Negligence also extends to the present and previous US Government administrations, their agencies and members of Congress.  To put the Commission Report in context we need to go back in time to 1982, and take in some history.

Two World events that were never to be repeated

The Ocean Ranger was a semi-submersible rig drilling an exploration well offshore Newfoundland with 84 crew on board when it sank on 15th February 1982. There were no survivors.  A Canadian Royal Commission spent two years looking into the disaster, a disaster not unlike many in that it was totally and utterly avoidable.

  • The Royal Commission concluded, amongst other things, that inspection and regulation of the offshore oil industry by the US and Canadian government was, in their words, ineffective.

Things would require to improve and both Governments made significant commitments including that of improving the regulatory framework for their offshore oil industries.

Six years later in 1988, an explosion and fire on the Piper Alpha platform caused the deaths of 167 persons.  The Public Inquiry into that event led to revolutionary changes to the way the industry was regulated in the UK and how the risks to persons offshore were to be assessed and reduced to acceptable levels.

  • Although the post Piper Alpha Safety Case culture was adopted widely both in Europe and around the world it was virtually ignored in the US.  For example, at the time of the Deepwater Horizon accident there was no requirement in the US to develop or submit Safety Cases to any Government agency.

The Presidential Commission Preliminary Findings into the Deepwater Horizon – a case study in lessons unlearned and actions undone

Despite the disasters that happened so many years ago, the lessons they brought forward it would appear were largely ignored.  According to the findings of the Commission over the years not much changed for the better with regards to the regulation of the offshore oil industry in the US.

  • The Presidential Commission found that the US Government failed to provide the oversight necessary to prevent lapses in judgement and management by a private industry.
  • Industry regulations were inadequate to address the risks of deepwater drilling. Many critical aspects of drilling operations were left to industry to decide without agency review.
  • They explain that the root cause for the Disaster can be better found by considering how efforts to expand regulatory oversight, tighten safety requirements, and provide funding to equip regulators with the resources, personnel, and training needed to be effective were overtly resisted.
  • Over many years it appears that Regulatory improvements were not supported by the Oil industry, members of legislature in Congress, and several administrations.
  • As a result, neither the regulations nor the regulators were asking the tough questions or requiring the demonstration of preparedness that could have avoided the disaster.
  • They say that even if the industry Regulator MMS had the resources and political support needed to promulgate the kinds of regulations necessary to reduce risk, it would still have lacked personnel with the kinds of expertise and training needed to enforce those regulations effectively.

This was an industry that appeared so out of touch with reality or ingrained with subterfuge that it presented its case for deepwater drilling almost totally on the argument that blowouts were rare events.

The US Government it appears accepted this with no background checks of the historical data.  In fact, prior to Deepwater Horizon the Gulf of Mexico as a region had the biggest share of the world’s blowouts.  It was in fact a hotspot for blowouts.  Since the sixties the Gulf suffered 11 notable blowouts (a frequency of recurrence of less than 4 years) with 31 associated fatalities and massive pollution. The lack of confidence in the Regulator MMS by the Administration was obvious as witnessed by the sacking of the Head of MMS and the demise of that organisation.  It took Congress only a few days of scrutiny to unearth that the emergency oil spill response plans for BP and others were not worth the paper they were written on.

Prior to giving agreement to issue leases to allow drilling in deepwater, if the Administration and Congress had used even the slightest amount of care and attention to detail, the Disaster may have been avoided by these actions alone.

No doubt, at least some of the Congressmen and administrators who were so energetically calling for the blood of the BP CEO way back in June last year, have over the years been motivated, not by safeguarding the health and safety of their citizens, but by their own selfish interests.  And no doubt in the process lining their pockets.

As the first Governmental body, the Environmental Protection Agency, makes public it intention to sue BP and others, the question needs to be asked – Where is the legitimacy of a Government and its legislature that allows it to take and support legal action for gross negligence against others in a matter where its own negligence has been clearly established?

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