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Spring 2012 Vol. 12 Number 1

Table of Contents

Lessons From Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon oil spill response efforts, U.S. Coast Guard photo by Matthew Belson

Before April 20, 2010, most Americans had little understanding of the complexities of offshore oil and gas drilling. But that changed rapidly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. Suddenly, the inherently risky business of offshore drilling came under intense scrutiny, and terms such as “blowout preventer” and “hydrocarbon zone” were no longer simply industry jargon. Several different investigations were launched to determine what went wrong, including an analysis by an expert committee of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council.

The committee’s analysis found that multiple flawed decisions led to the blowout of the well and the subsequent explosion, indicating a lack of effective safety management among the companies involved. The committee’s final report provides an integrated technical perspective on the event and makes recommendations to reduce the risk of such a catastrophe occurring again.

Above all, companies need to adopt a “systems safety” approach to anticipating and managing possible dangers at every level of operation in offshore drilling -- from ensuring the integrity of wells to designing blowout preventers that function under all foreseeable conditions, the report says. “One of the reasons why we focused so much on a safety culture is to make sure that the type of sensitivity, attention, and care that is being employed by the industry since the accident is maintained in the long term,” said Donald C. Winter, former secretary of the Navy, professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

In addition, both industry and regulators had a “misplaced trust” in the ability of blowout preventer systems to act as fail-safe mechanisms in the event of a well blowout, the report says, despite numerous past warnings of potential dangers. These systems should be redesigned, rigorously tested, and maintained to operate reliably.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is requiring offshore drilling companies to develop and follow procedures for meeting explicit health, safety, and environmental protection goals, which the report says is a good first step toward an enhanced regulatory approach. The DOI regulatory program should be expanded to a goal-oriented risk management system that incorporates explicit regulatory review and approval of the safety-critical points in the drilling operation. And the U.S. should make a single government agency responsible for integrating system safety for all offshore drilling activities.   -- Molly Galvin

Macondo Well-Deepwater Horizon Blowout: Lessons for Improving Offshore Drilling Safety. Committee on the Analysis of Causes of the Deepwater Horizon Explosion, Fire, and Oil Spill to Identify Measures to Prevent Similar Accidents in the Future, Transportation Research Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies, and National Academy of Engineering (2011, 196 pp.; ISBN 0-309-22138-2; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $47.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Donald C. Winter, professor of engineering practice, department of naval architecture and marine engineering, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences