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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Take, for instance, testimony by Michael Saucier, the head of field operations for the New Orleans branch of the MMS, who told investigators about his team's oversight of federal safety standards for blowout preventers, or BOPs, often called the "last line of defense" against a spill.Skip to next paragraph
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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?"
"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."