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The Big Energy Tango: Drilling Safety After Deepwater Horizon

Tadeusz (Tad) Patzek

April 19, 2012

As easily recoverable oil is depleted, humans reach to faraway, deep, cold, and wet places that also happen to be fragile and ecologically important to the Earth.  Such is humanity’s understandable and irreversible choice.  The global oil and gas industry, the largest human enterprise ever, is the technological executor of our choice.  We in turn like and utilize the industry’s products, but have zero tolerance for mishaps, accidents, and real or perceived transgressions of their operations.  Thus, we have a serious and growing problem the industry is trying to address: While the severity and scope of operational risks in hydrocarbon production increase, the society’s (and planet’s) ability to absorb possible accidents decreases.  For both partners in this “Big Energy” tango – us and them – the Deepwater Horizon accident was a watershed.  We all realized how unprepared humanity was for such disasters and how disruptive they were for the living Earth.

Since Deepwater Horizon, the industry has spent billions of dollars on new better technology for spill prevention and containment.  There has also been a considerable effort to strengthen and improve the industry’s “safety culture.”  It turns out that it is much easier to deploy lots of new shiny equipment than to overcome the organizational and cultural barriers to real process safety.  When I say “safety,” you probably think about broken hands and smashed toes.  But real safety of drilling and completing an offshore well has nothing to do with personal safety.  One can blow up a rig while never dropping a hammer.

Process safety requires designing and putting in place the thorough, interlocking procedures that eliminate most egregious process risks. Creation of multiple barriers to flow at any moment of drilling is a good example.  Process safety requires a clear ownership of each problem by a competent person.  It enforces a proper management structure and a pervasive corporate culture that makes everyone perform complex tasks, while preserving multiple passive and active safety barriers.  Safety culture requires proper technology, sensors, software, process models, and skilled people to be vigilant 24/7.

While several companies, most notably Shell, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Noble Drilling and Technip, have been perfecting their versions of process safety, I missed hearing about the similar developments at BP.  I hope that their safety culture is evolving towards an acceptable standard, while their giant liabilities from the Deepwater Horizon disaster are settled and offshore drilling is resumed. I keep my fingers crossed.

BP Responds to Patzek

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Tadeusz (Tad) Patzek is chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. In January 2011, Patzek became a member of the Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee for the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).  He recently co-wrote a popular book about the Deepwater Horizon well disaster, Drilling Down: The Gulf Debacle and our Energy Dilemma.


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