04/22/2015 01:37 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2015

Lessons (Un)Learned in the Last 5 Years in Offshore Oil Industry Since the BP Deepwater Horizon Accident

By Najmedin Meshkati, Maryam Tabibzadeh and Cyrus Ashayeri

With the 5th anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon (DWH) on April 20, the existing data on the number of accidents and incidents in offshore drilling and production within recent years does not seem encouraging or comforting. Some highlighted examples of these accidents are the major gas leak on the Elgin offshore platform in the North Sea in March 2012, which forced ships and aircrafts to stay miles away from the site and caused an international uproar, and the Black Elk platform blast in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) in November 2012, which killed 3 workers and injured several others.

The most recent major accident and fire occurred on an offshore platform, named Abkatun Alpha, which was operated by PEMEX, located in Campeche Bay in the GOM on April 1, 2015. The casualty of this fatal incident has been reported 4 deaths and as many as 45 injured. 301 workers have been evacuated from the area and firefighting crew was brought to the scene. On April 6th, it was announced that PEMEX resumes operation on the platform. In a press conference, held April 5th, Gustavo Hernandez Garcia, Director General of PEMEX Exploration & Production, introduced the internal protocols on the platform as the reason for rapid evacuation of the workers to avoid a major tragedy. Luckily, this time, no spill was reported into the GOM, partly because Abkatun Alpha was a processing platform that separates oil, gas and water, after receiving the production from other platforms. Almost forgotten, the area of Campeche Bay was host to one of the largest oil spills in the world in 1979. The blowout of Ixtoc I exploratory well, operated by PEMEX, initiated an oil spill at the rate of 30,000 bbl./day, which lasted for several months. The repetition of such incidents raises the question of safety issues among oil companies.

All the aforementioned accidents; especially, the PEMEX blowout that occurred only few days before the 5th anniversary of the BP DWH blowout, indicate that despite recent investigations and developed regulations, lessons from previous major offshore catastrophes have not still been adequately learned, disseminated, and more importantly, implemented across the world. Therefore, there are still plenty of opportunities to do a much better job, when it comes to offshore drilling safety; as world's people and ecosystems should not have to experience another accident and oil spill anywhere.

The criticality of offshore drilling safety appears more essential based on the stated statistics by the head of the International Energy Agency of the OECD. According to these statistics, approximately 30% of the world's oil production came from offshore drilling in 2010 and this number is going to increase to about 50% in 2015. The growth of deep-water drilling as a specific case of offshore drilling, which seems to be increasing every year, is not only limited to the Gulf of Mexico (by the US, Mexico, and Cuba). This is expected to grow in the Atlantic Ocean (from Delaware Bay to Cape Canaveral, Florida by the US), in the Mediterranean, Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, North Slope of Alaska, as well as off the coasts of China, India, Brazil, and Angola. As an example, seven of the ten largest hydrocarbon fields discovered in the past decade in the world are in deep-water off the coast of Brazil.

According to the 2012 published report by the Institute for Energy and Transport, Joint Research Centre, of the European Commission on the safety of offshore oil and gas operations based on lessons learned from past accidents, "failures of the safety management system and a poor safety culture are almost always the underlying cause of major accidents". The analysis of several other accidents on offshore drilling and production platforms corroborates this finding. For instance, the 2013 published investigation report by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) of the US Department of the Interior on the Black Elk platform blast stated the failing to establish an effective safety culture as a root-cause of that accident.

Safety culture is typically defined as the assembly of characteristics and attitudes in organizations and individuals, which establishes that as an overriding priority, safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance. The BSEE defines safety culture as the "the core values and behaviors of all members of an organization that reflect a commitment to conducting business in a safe and environmentally responsible manner". According to the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP), in a strong positive safety culture, everyone feels responsible for safety and pursues it on a daily basis. In such an environment, employees go beyond "the call of duty" to identify unsafe conditions and behaviors.

The importance and the critical role of safety culture was highlighted by the director of the BSEE, Mr. Brian Salerno, in his remarks at the Second Annual Center for Offshore Safety Forum on April 10, 2014, which almost coincided with the 4th anniversary of the BP DWH catastrophe. In addition, he stated in his speech that despite all discussions regarding improvements to Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) and advancing the safety culture, there are some who "still don't get it". In those remarks, he also emphasized on fostering "a culture of safety among all involved in offshore operations so that it becomes part of the way business is conducted".

Despite the described importance of fostering a culture of safety and improving safety management systems, the very recent announcement of the Department of the Interior regulation is expected to tighten safety requirements on Blowout Preventers (BOPs), as the last resort to stop explosions in subsea oil and gas wells. Our analysis and several similar analyses depict the need to comprehensively study the whole offshore systems and not only BOPs as a means to improve the safety of offshore operations. This integrated system-oriented perspective is necessary in developing proactive strategies to prevent an incident in earlier stages before the need to activate a blowout preventer, as the last line of defense.

The global industry of offshore drilling and production should strive for higher universal safety standards and closer cooperation among its members and regulators. Companies and countries engaging in offshore drilling should proactively and voluntarily pledge to seriously address the institutionalization of safety culture, not only at rig level, but also at higher levels of company and regulatory agency in their countries; if not for the sake of the public, at least for the sake of their own survival and bottom line.

Influential industry trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) should join forces and forge alliances with their counterparts in other countries and develop codes of best practices and "enforce" or ensure their voluntary implementations. Stakeholder countries should start devising a balance between national sovereignty over their territorial waters and international responsibility toward their neighbors and region, when it comes to the safety of their offshore drilling rigs. This can start at the regional level. For starts, the Gulf of Mexico littoral countries - the US, Mexico and Cuba - should be entitled and enabled to learn about and ascertain the adequacy of the specific safety considerations and practices of all operating platforms. As in the context of the Gulf of Mexico, at the end of the day, all those countries will be affected by water contamination from an accidental spill, anywhere on the coasts of this small pond.

We should learn from the Macondo Well blowout, and we shouldn't give up, as we can do better than what happened on the Deepwater Horizon rig. More importantly, we, along with companies and countries engaging in offshore drilling and production owe taking these bold safety improvement initiatives to the memory of the eleven people who lost their lives onboard the BP Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010, as well as to the 3 on the Black Elk, 4 on the Abkatun Alpha, and the 167 who died in the explosion and fires aboard Piper Alpha on July 6, 1988 (a North Sea oil production platform operated by Occidental Petroleum), and many more...


Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering and international relations at the University of Southern California (USC), was a Jefferson Science Fellow and Senior Science and Engineering Advisor, Office of Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State (2009-2010). He conducts research on roles of human performance safety culture in complex, large-scale technological systems' accidents. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering/National Research Council (NAE/NRC) "Committee for Analysis of Causes of the Deepwater Horizon Explosion, Fire, and Oil Spill to Identify Measures to Prevent Similar Accidents to the Future" (2010-2011). A copy of the Committee's report, Macondo Well Deepwater Horizon Blowout: Lessons for Improving Offshore Drilling Safety, can be obtained from the website of the National Academies Press. This commentary, however, should not necessarily be construed as the Committee's representative position.

Maryam Tabibzadeh, PhD, is currently a part-time faculty of the California State University, Northridge. She received her PhD in Industrial and Systems Engineering from the University of Southern California. In her PhD dissertation, she focused on risk analysis of complex, safety-critical and technology-intensive industries. Her research concentration has been on risk analysis of human and organizational factors along with technical elements, which was applied to offshore drilling, with a focus on the Negative Pressure Test in the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout as a case study.

Cyrus Ashayeri, is a graduate researcher at the University of Southern California, has a BS in Chemical Engineering, an MSc in Petroleum Engineering and is continuing towards an MSc in Geoscience Technologies. As a member of Hydraulic Fracturing Safety Team at USC, his research has been focused on the environmental and safety aspects of developing unconventional hydrocarbon resources. Other research areas include global energy economics and unconventional resources in OPEC countries.