Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/11/2010 (2468 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- After space shuttle Challenger exploded and killed seven astronauts during a 1986 launch from Kennedy Space Center, NASA pledged to redesign the craft's flawed booster rockets and overhaul the agency's overall approach to space-flight safety.
But after seven more astronauts died in 2003, when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on its way back to Earth for a landing at KSC, the lead investigator of that second disaster told Congress that NASA's safety discipline was "perfect" on paper only.
"When you bore down a little bit deeper, you don't find any there, there," retired Adm. Harold Gehman said at the time. "There's no people, money, engineering, expertise, analysis."
Now, many people are waiting to see whether the offshore-drilling industry rewrites its safety protocols or, as NASA did after Challenger, settles for relatively quick fixes to the hardware and procedures that failed in April, when a well owned by British petroleum giant BP PLC erupted and destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 crewmen and unleashing an 86-day gusher of crude oil into the Gulf.
Right up until that disaster occurred, Florida had been lobbied by a drilling industry brimming with confidence and boasting of its track record as it sought access to the Gulf's shallow, state-controlled waters as well as the deeper, federal waters farther offshore.
When those drillers return to lobby Florida and rekindle the fierce debate over whether oil rigs should be allowed anywhere near the state, Floridians will have good reason to wonder whether -- and how -- the industry has sufficiently conquered the odds of another spill.
"This is an inherently high-risk operation with lots of moving parts, any one of which can contribute to or cause a major accident," said former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, co-chairman of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The former Florida governor is also a longtime proponent of keeping rigs "as far as possible" from the state's shoreline.
"The idea that there won't be another accident someplace, somehow, by somebody is, I think, very naive," said Graham.
Offshore oil drillers are already warning of obstacles other than budget cuts when it comes to revamping how the industry prevents fatalities and spills in the Gulf. Many experts say the business is too driven by competitive forces to apply the types of co-operative safety measures adopted by the nuclear-power industry, commercial passenger airlines and even offshore drillers in Europe.
Key to those industries' culture of safety: They freely share data about trends, anomalies and possible remedies.
"Oil and gas has been historically extremely competitive," Michael Bromwich, director of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said in addressing the presidential commission last week in Washington. "There would be issues about technical and proprietary and confidential information that companies may be reluctant to share."
Those who spoke during last week's commission hearings sidestepped the blaming of individual crew members for what happened on the Deepwater Horizon; instead, they focused on the training and the procedures put in place by BP; rig owner Transocean Ltd.; and Halliburton Co., the subcontractor hired to inject cement into the well to lock down various sets of pipe.
"None of these men out on the rig want to die," said Sean Grimsley, the commission's deputy chief counsel. "None of the men out on that rig want to jeopardize the safety of the men and women they work with."
The panel examined the cascade of contributing factors -- from a questionable well design to botched procedures and a lack of co-ordinated effort -- that led to a catastrophic explosion on the rig at 9:49 p.m. April 20. More than 650-million litres of crude would gush into Gulf waters before the well was capped Aug. 15.
Earlier this month, BP announced that the spill has cost nearly $40 billion so far in terms of plugging the well, cleaning up the oil and paying economic damages.
"This is not an April 20th event," said the commission's senior science-and-engineering adviser, Richard Sears, a former Royal Dutch Shell scientist. "This is something they built over hours, if not days, weeks, months. The companies involved each had data. They were each responsible for operations. If data had been shared differently, and operations had been carried out differently, I believe this disaster could have been prevented."
John Amos, a former exploration geologist whose non-profit group SkyTruth documents oil spills by analyzing satellite images, said industry reforms should deal with more than just the specifics of what happened on the Deepwater Horizon.
"The question I have about drilling is: How many bullets have we dodged without even knowing it?" Amos said. "That's what makes me uneasy. I think there needs to be a much more systematic and broader and deeper investigation of incidents and near-incidents to answer that question."
Last month, the Obama administration lifted its moratorium on drilling in areas of the Gulf where the water is more than 300 metres deep. But before drilling resumes, oil companies must now meet more-stringent requirements that address what went wrong with the equipment and operations involved in the BP accident. And so far no new drilling has been approved, which some industry supporters say amounts to a virtual continuation of the moratorium.
Other stabs at reform are in the works, including legislation that would strengthen the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a proposal by the U.S. Interior Department to establish an Ocean Energy Safety Institute, and an effort by the American Petroleum Institute to develop a new safety program for the industry.
Alyson Flournoy, a University of Florida law professor and principal contributor to a BP disaster report by the Center for Progressive Reform think tank, said federal regulators must be given far greater authority and additional resources to drive reform.
"Within the U.S. legal system, industry has had incentives for safety, but obviously they haven't been enough," she said.
In contrast, Elmer "Bud" Danenberger, who retired early this year as chief of offshore-regulatory programs for the U.S. Minerals Management Service, thinks industry must take the lead in boosting safety, as is the case in Europe, and not use government regulators as a crutch or excuse.
"This industry was riding high before Macondo," Danenberger said, using BP's name for the blown-out well. "The Atlantic was going to be opened up for the first time since 1985. Alaska was probably going to see expanded operations there. Even the state of Florida was looking at drilling in state waters.
"But you're only as good as your weakest link," said Danenberger, who has chronicled the BP disaster in his Bud's Offshore Energy blog. "So they have to think in terms of what can they do collectively, and not just within their company. They tend not to work together very well."
Robert Bea, a drilling and marine-industry expert at the University of California at Berkeley, said drillers' advance into deeper and deeper waters during the past 20 years has produced a risky combination of factors: The oil reservoirs are more potent, the technologies employed are more complex, but the industry hasn't advanced its risk management in ways that might have prevented the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.
"Did any one of them want to die? Did any one of them want to be injured or to injure someone? I think the answer is clearly no," Bea said of the crew aboard the drilling platform April 20. "But did they understand the consequences of what they were doing and what was acceptable to the American public? I think the answer is clearly no."
-- The Orlando Sentinel