Six lessons from the BP oil spill
What the tragedy of the BP oil spill has taught us about regulations, technology, and how our energy diet must change.
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After listening to Mr. Saucier detail MMS oversight of BOP testing, Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, co-chair of the federal investigative panel, sought clarification. "So my understanding is that [the BOP] is designed to industry standard, manufactured by industry, installed by industry with no government witnessing oversight of the construction or the installation; is that correct?"Skip to next paragraph
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"That would be correct," Saucier said.
At another point, Saucier told the panel that the MMS had "highly encouraged" companies to have backup systems to trigger blowout preventers in an emergency.
"Highly encourage?" Nguyen asked. "How does that translate to enforcement?"
"There is no enforcement," Saucier answered.
Given such testimony, experts say the key issue is simply getting rid of the cozy relationship between the oil industry and regulators. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is taking steps to cut the MMS into three parts, separating safety enforcement from royalty collections and offshore leasing.
But the Government Accountability Office, the Inspector General's Office, and engineering experts who oversaw a 30-day safety report on offshore drilling all want more. Norway, the United Kingdom, and Australia have some of the world's best safety practices and regulations, they say.
After the 1988 Piper Alpha rig disaster in the North Sea, where 167 people died, Britain separated safety oversight from other regulatory functions. Instead of a rules-based approach, not unlike that of the US today, it adopted a "case based" system that describes objectives – then challenges companies to show they can meet them.
Needed, too, is better testing of critical BOP equipment, like blind-shear rams. "What we really need are specific guidelines for how these things must be tested – and then have the results go into a computer accessible by everyone," says Benton Baugh, a BOP expert.
Yet all the testing and offshore police in the world can't overcome human error. Robert Bea, a safety engineering expert at the University of California, Berkeley, says the need is to focus on how people react and interact with complex safety systems when the siren goes off.
"We've neglected the human things," he says, "the designers, the people that operate [BOPs], the people that maintain them, the people who have to handle rapidly developing crises."
2 design a better drill rig
As oil discoveries in deeper waters beckon, giant new rigs will plunge drill bits two miles below the sea surface and five more miles into the earth – the equivalent of 29 Empire State Buildings. But such ultradeep drilling means ultrahigh pressures. At any time a bit could hit a pocket of pressurized gas that bursts to the surface and explodes. Capping a blowout 10,000 feet down would make the Deepwater Horizon problem look like a do-it-yourself caulk job.
The industry is currently working on new "sixth-generation" deep-sea rigs that experts say will be the safest ever developed – but still not foolproof in handling one of the most challenging engineering feats faced by man. The cost of the new rigs: about $500 million.