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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Before the BP Blowout

Just 5 months before the Deepwater Horizon oil platform caught fire and sank in April 2010, there was a frighteningly similar (although largely undocumented) incident off the coast of Western Australia. The Montara oil rig seen here (photos) suffered what is known in the oil industry as a ‘blowout’, where oil and gas flowed uncontrolled from the reservoir below, creating the worst oil spill in Australian history.

The rig operators spent 10 weeks trying to plug the leak before the escaping hydrocarbons caught fire on 2nd November 2009. No one was killed; a report published following an investigation of the incident explains why:

“No-one was injured or killed as a result of this incident.  It has to be said that this is more good luck than good management and that, if the blowout had ignited immediately, the result could have been similar to the Deepwater Horizon incident which resulted in 11 fatalities and many injuries.”
Hayes, 2011.

Not exactly reassuring. The report went on to highlight a string of procedural failures that led to the eventual fire. One such failure concerned the Pressure Containing Corrosion Caps (PCCCs), which are used during the drilling process to plug the hole and prevent the oil flowing back up the drilling pipe. Even thought the design of the well included two such caps, only one was actually installed (despite the manufacturer's warnings that this would be insufficient).
Furthermore, during drilling the rig workers pump a slurry known as ‘mud’ into the well to lubricate the drill and balance the hydrostatic pressure of the rock formation (the pressure from the mud being pumped down must be greater than the pressure of the formation or there will be flow back up the pipe, causing a blowout). But perplexingly, the pressure difference was not monitored by the rig workers. The report states that:“In the case of Montara, it seems to have been assumed by everyone involved that the well was overbalanced but this was not the case.”

It would appear that various stages of mismanagement, cut-corners and poor practice eventually led to the blowout and subsequent fire on the Montara oil rig. A true example of ‘design-by-disaster’, this investigation will be used to upgrade rules and procedures and instigate necessary changes in legislation - a move that may well increase safety in the Australian oil industry.
But I fear this will not solve the problem. After all, oil companies in Australia and elsewhere are already subject to strict safety regulations and must conform to local procedures before, during and after drilling. So it would appear that lack of legislation and regulation is not the problem.
Perhaps it is the fault of the tools and systems used by the drilling contractor? This is also unlikely, as modern drilling systems contain multiple redundancies that, if used correctly, should prevent any blowout from occurring.

Just 5 months later the Deepwater Horizon suffered a similar blowout, and although the circumstances were very different, the root cause appeared to be the same: Human error. It seems that both the Montara disaster and the Deepwater Horizon could have been prevented if rules had been followed and/or people had understood what they were doing.

So if the regulations and technical systems are indeed up to standard, oil companies seeking to improve safety should seek to reduce human error. One option is to create and enforce new rules (and remove responsibility from employees) or educate employees to understand the risks and subsequent need for safety procedures.
The $250M Montara rig, after the fire

If oil companies choose to create and enforce new rules they must focus on training. Employees must be taught to conform to the new rules and learn that rule breakers will be punished with disciplinary action. There are two major issues with this approach:
1 - Employees do not need to understand why the rule is there, just that they must obey it. To break the rule is to risk being punished; the implied risk to personal safety is not necessarily understood.
2 - If employees encounter a real situation for which they have not been specifically trained, they will be unable to react. If the rules are followed this should never happen; if the rules are followed.

Alternatively a company could educate employees to understand the risks and the resulting safety procedures. This could be done first by establishing a purpose - a desirable outcome - in this case: to prevent a blowout. Initially, rig workers could be encouraged to identify ways in which a blowout could occur, familiarise themselves with the problem and offer preventative measures (including ones they construct themselves). Only after employees have established the problem and attempted to solve it using their own methods should the company train them in additional, standard procedures and tools that have been shown to achieve the same result. In this way, employees learn to use safe methods and understand the underlying reasoning.

The Montara and Deepwater Horizon blowouts demonstrate that, even with extensive safety regulations and procedures in place, the responsibility for ensuring safety still lies with the individuals involved. If safety is to be improved proactively, rather than design-by-disaster, and if the industry is to contain responsible individuals who respect safety procedures then there needs to be a system of education that promotes understanding, not just compliance.

I wonder how many more catastrophes it will take for industry to realise this.

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