The upstream petroleum industry stands alone in its resistance to change. All other high-risk industries such as aviation, rail signalling, and nuclear industries have adopted automation to improve Process Safety and dramatically reduce the probability of a Major Accident Hazard occurring.
In 2010, the Transocean Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was drilling the Macondo well, in the Gulf of Mexico, for BP. Little has changed since April 20th, 2010, when on that rig an explosion was the precursor for 11 fatalities, the total loss of the drilling rig and an estimated five-million-barrel oil spill, which became the largest marine oil spill in human history. It’s claimed that the cost to BP is of the order of $70 billion and it cost the industry $140 billion. In addition, the industry’s reputation to the public is also seriously damaged. The industry is seen as old, dirty and damaging to the environment.
Many years of investigation followed to understand what caused this event and what transpired was not unusual. A combination of issues was identified: systemic, process, culture, conflicting drivers, competence, lack of preparedness, complacency and insufficient governance to name a few.
Enormous resources have gone into understanding what went wrong.
Revised standards for BOP equipment were instigated, such as API S53, which required additional blow out preventer equipment to be installed on suitable rigs on a global basis. This measure is “more of the same”, rather than a dramatic change.
The industry has set up several task forces: The Centre for Offshore Safety, The Well Control Institute, Marine Well Containment Company and The Global Industry Response Group.
In addition, $500m has been set aside for research and development with the Gulf Research Program.
The United States Government revised the regulatory framework in the US, creating an independent body: The Bureau for Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
Energy Transition will become a way of life as the world continues to source renewable energy sources, however, petroleum will be a feature in the energy mix for many decades. Our industry needs to demonstrate we are a responsible contributor to society, producing energy in a clean and safe manner.
In summary one could say that our key contributions following Macondo are as follows:
- Enhanced focus on BOP equipment standards and training
- Better organisation
- Improved US Regulator
- More research
- Enhanced environmental awareness
In the ensuing ten years, we have significant evidence for things that are less desirable.
The team on the Deepwater Horizon was wracked with conflicting opinions with the decision making predominantly driven by Human Factors. A logic-based decision-making rationale would have prevented the tragedy. The same human based decision-making protocol exists today, with all the incumbent individual and group Human Factors decision-making issues.
We work in a cyclic industry. The boom from 2010 to 2014 resulted in many new rigs built and the existing talent pool diluted to meet the crew demands. The downturns of 2015/16 and 2020 have and will result in significant experience loss, particularly from senior levels such as Driller and Toolpusher, which are responsible for well control. This employment instability has seriously undermined the industry competence in key areas.
Unconventional oil and gas plays, coupled with de-regulation to encourage petroleum production within the U.S. mainland, have enabled a resurgence in the industry, however, there has been a price to pay. Economic challenges have forced reduced competency, reduced supervision and reduced standards. Anecdotally this has resulted in many more accidents.
The more recent challenges facing the industry include price wars, ever increasing litigation and the increasing Total Cost of Risk.
On the other side of the equation we could summarise as follows:
- No major changes
- Reduction in competency
- Reduced regulation in the Lower 48
- Price War challenges
- Increasing litigation
- Pandemic challenges
In practice very little has actually changed. One could argue the situation is worse than before Macondo. Over-reliance on humans and therefore exposure to Human Factors is a constant risk. Most blowouts during well construction operations are caused during drilling and these are predominantly caused by the operative just not recognising the influx.
What is required is a change in mindset from “We have always done it this way” to “Let’s learn from other high-risk industries”. These industries have adopted automation to improve Process Safety and dramatically reduce the probability of a Major Accident Hazard occurring.
Learning from our mistakes is one of the best skills mankind has. We have successfully done that in almost every other high-risk industry with the application of automation.
Automated Well Control is the next brave step for the upstream petroleum industry. We must take this step forward together to make a safer, cleaner, and more profitable society.