What Are The Real Lessons From the “Deepwater Horizon” Accident?

Like everyone else I’ve been watching the results of the aftermath of BP’s deepwater exploration rig “Deepwater Horizon” explosion and subsequent sinking and release of millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf.  I’m sorry for the people on the gulf, particularly on the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, that are having to deal with this mess, my heart goes out to you much as it would if your homes burned down (by accident), you were in a serious car accident (by accident) or you lost your homes to a tornado or hurricane (natural disaster/accident).

I hope my point wasn’t too subtle for anyone.  This was an ACCIDENT.  In time, we’ll find out if it was a preventable accident or not, but for now it’s just a horrible accident.  The plain truth is that it was also inevitable.  We’ve been drilling offshore since the 1930’s and the modern drill platforms appeared in 1961 or thereabouts.  Right now there are a little over 600 rigs available for lease or use by the oil companies to drill for oil.  The oil exploration business is and INDUSTRY.  It’s a very complex industry and anytime you deal with a complex industrial process from time to time there is going to be an accident.  All of these marvelous machines and all of these trained workers have a human component and that component will, from time to time, fail either in the design or implementation of their machines or in their performance of the job.  The point is, industrial accidents happen.  The always have, they always will, it’s only human.

The real test is what happens after the accident.  How does the company respond to the accident and its aftermath?  In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, I’d have to say that BP didn’t respond very well.  I believe after talking to people that work on the rigs out in the gulf and people that are quite knowledgeable about the subject that INITIALLY, BP was trying to save the hole.  I don’t think that lasted long, though, because they quickly came to the realization that it wasn’t going to be possible to save it.  From that point on, BP’s only interest was in containing the oil short term and plugging the hole long term.  Yes, I’d call that a failure on their part.  I think they’re still failing in some ways when I read and see people and boats ready to go to work to contain and clean up that are sitting and waiting for contracts/orders/authorizations.  It would be nice to think that these altruistic souls would just go out and get to work but the harsh truth is it takes fuel to run those boats, it takes money to pay people that should be fishing but can’t and need other work, and only a few can actually just pick up and go long term to do this kind of thing, everyone else needs some kind of money to be able to actually get to work.

BP, being such a large international corporation, is a political entity itself.  Except for a very few at the higher levels, everyone there is worried about their job.  They’re not going to exceed their authority and the buck gets passed up higher until there is actual approval to do some of these things, so people wait.  This is a failure.  Likewise, our federal government has failed miserably.  I believe this failure would have occurred if the president’s name had an (R) or a (D) after it for the exact same reasons as BP’s failure, nobody willing to take the responsibility to actually DO anything.

If we understand and accept that the accident was inevitable the question then becomes how do we deal with it once it happens?  Obviously this is where we need to make changes and improvements.  FEMA and the USCG need to have an immediate response plan in place that the field commanders can instantly begin implementing.  The oil companies need to do the same thing.  Both parties need to realize that in some cases, this accident being a prime example, there is no possible way to have all of the resources you need instantly available 24/7 so when help is offered, as it was by the Dutch and other European nations, they are able to bring them in and put them to work right away instead of waiting for 2 months and then when they’re here, ignoring their input and recommendations.

The mess will get cleaned up.  The hole will get plugged.  The gulf will return to normal.  It’s going to take a long time, of that there is no doubt, but for this to be anything but a complete waste the oil companies and the federal government need to use this to learn where their system failed so that when the NEXT accident happens they are better prepared to contain and clean up the resulting mess.

-john stricker

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Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 7:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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