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Preventable Oil Disasters

September 11, 2012

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico during the spring of 2010 could have been prevented if the experiences of earlier disasters had been put to use, REMESO researcher Charles Woolfson claims. The United States government is now accusing BP of gross negligence and deliberate misconduct, and taking the company to court.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform exploded into the ocean; south of the southern coast of the US. The explosion caused the deaths of eleven people and an unfathomable environmental catastrophe. Using advanced technology, Deepwater Horizon drilled for oil at the record depth of more than 4,000 meters below the ocean´s surface. In a wrap-up manoeuvre, a newly drilled source was to be secured by being capped with cement so that it could be opened and extracted at a later date.

However something went wrong. The seal broke causing oil and gas to flood out under high pressure and into the ocean. Following several explosions, the rig was evacuated. Eleven of the 126 on board did not survive. The gas and oil spewed forth uncontrollably for several months. In total, almost five million barrels of oil escaped, causing enormous environmental damage.

Charles Woolfson, former professor of Labour Sociology in Glasgow and currently professor of Labour Studies at REMESO at Linköping University (LiU), conducted a large study during the 1990s of the world´s biggest oil disaster: the Piper Alpha. 167 people lost their lives when this production platform sank into the North Sea in 1988.

As part of a new study, he compares the two disasters and the (inadequate) safety culture that caused them. He finds, he writes, several depressing similarities. Woolfson claims that if the right lessons had been learned from Piper Alpha, the accident at Deepwater Horizon would never have happened. The recommendation issued at that time should have become a turning point. However more than two decades later, the safety requirements for United States deep-sea drilling are largely the same as before the North Sea accident in 1988.

Woolfson points out a fundamental contradiction between safety and profitable production. Both disasters illustrate examples of cost-cutting decisions that worsened safety. In the Deepwater Horizon case, a final independent test of the fateful cement seal was cancelled. The test would have cost USD 128,000 (EUR 101,000).

Woolfson has received unexpected support from the United States government, which recently submitted an application for a summons indictment through its Justice Department. According to the 39-page document, the words and actions of the company regarding safety “should not be tolerated even in a medium-sized company producing goods for a shopping mall.”

Woolfson emphasizes two other critical factors known as “regulatory capture” and the fear-stricken, disunited employees. Regulatory capture means that the independent agency inspecting an industry identifies itself more and more with the companies of that industry and their interests. This happened to the Petroleum Engineering Division under the Ministry of Energy in Great Britain, and the Mineral Management Service (MMS), the federal institution in the United States charged with monitoring the offshore oil industry.

While the regulations were gradually tightened for drilling oil on land, deep-sea drilling continued to remain the exception. This applied in particular to the Gulf of Mexico, where the number of exemptions from various environmental requirements increased from three in 1997 up to 795 in 2000, all to avoid “cumbersome and unnecessary delays” in production. A program for tightened safety regulations dragged through endless consulting processes with the industry and ultimately never bore fruit. When the MMS proposed updated safety requirements in 2003, the White House vetoed the proposal.

The cutbacks also affected the regulatory agency. The dwindling number of inspectors lacked sufficient training, and became more and more dependent on the expertise and information of the oil companies. This is according to the Obama-appointed independent National Commission´s own 2011 report on Deepwater Horizon. The same weakness was raised following the Piper Alpha disaster. The industry´s promises regarding self-regulation, voluntary enforcement and standards of conduct effectively torpedoed all demands for stricter supervision of safety arrangements. The National Commission in the United States wrote:
“It is inexcusable that a regulatory agency is so inadequate in its fundamental safety tasks.”

The hesitation among employees and the fear of making independent decisions also affected the catastrophic development of events in both cases, Woolfson states. On Deepwater Horizon, for example, the crew dared not make a decision about activating an emergency system that could have constrained the disaster. Woolfson describes a culture among the workers of silence and fear of being stamped as a troublemaker in the event that they expressed concerns over safety issues on board. Attempts at unionizing have been thwarted.

In total, BP has claims for damages against it totalling almost USD 70 billion (EUR 55.1 billion). The company denies all accusations of negligence and misconduct. Woolfson elaborates:

“The company may have to pay a high price“¦but the fundamental questions we must ask are: What went wrong, who is responsible, and how can we prevent it from happening again?”

“Industrial accidents don´t just ℠happen´, they are often the result of a weak culture of safety and companies systematically failing to prioritize safety.”

Following both catastrophes, the regulatory agencies and legal codes were reorganized and strengthened. However Woolfson discusses the risks of “gradual erosion” which, in time, will lead back to diminished thinking regarding safety. As oil becomes more expensive and less accessible, the risks in extracting it also increase.

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