Since the Deepwater Horizon spill five years ago, the oil industry has worked hard to improve the safety of drilling in deep water with standards, practices and equipment, said a former oil company scientist at the forefront of those changes.
“It’s been a $2 billion commitment, and it’s ongoing,” said Charlie Williams, the executive director of the Center for Offshore Safety. “We have designed, built, tested – with the government watching – and deployed, capping stacks that can be placed on blowouts that are far superior to those we had before, and are easier to deploy and install. There is permanent staff to maintain them, train companies to install them and to keep them ready to be deployed.”
Williams worked for 40 years for Shell Oil Co., where he was chief scientist for well engineering and production technology until 2012. He took over that year as head of the center, which the industry created after 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The biggest strides have been in subsea well-containment equipment and in spill preparedness and response, Williams said.
“The Marine Well Containment Company and the Helix Well Containment Group were founded in 2010,” Williams said, “with the goal to provide containment technology and response capabilities for the unique challenges of capping a well that is releasing oil thousands of feet below the water’s surface.”
Currently, the equipment is based in Houston, Williams said, but can be deployed anywhere quickly. Some of the equipment would likely move east if drilling were to occur in the Atlantic, he added.
The new systems, he said, can capture oil flowing from leak thousands of feet deep using remotely-controlled equipment. Risers and containment vessels that can safely capture, store and offload the oil, Williams said.
Equally important, he said, the center and its parent organization, the American Petroleum Institute, have dramatically raised industry standards and created more than 100 new ones. These set tougher rules for such things as blowout prevention equipment design, operation, repair and maintenance and associated control systems and protective equipment for oil spill response workers.
The idea is to promote reliability and safety through the use of proven engineering practices, and even more importantly, these standards are now reviewed on a regular basis to ensure they remain current, Williams added.
The organization has also spearheaded guidance on creation of offshore oil spill response plans; an evaluation of the mechanical recovery systems used at sea during the Deepwater incident; a report and field guide for spills on sand beaches and shoreline sediments, including protection techniques and detection and response capabilities; and an evaluation of the process by which alternative technologies are reviewed for use during an oil spill.
But, Williams said, the human factor is also crucial, and so a key is to make sure all of this is sustainable, so training of those who work on and manage the offshore facilities has taken on a new focus.
He also noted that the federal Department of the Interior reorganized its widely-criticized industry oversight organization, breaking it into two new agencies: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, to oversee federal leasing of offshore areas to oil and gas companies, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, responsible for ensuring compliance with safety and environmental standards.
The bureau increased the number of safety inspectors in the Gulf to 92, up from 55 at the time of the BP disaster
But Bob Deans, associate communications director of the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of Deepwater Horizon: The Oil Disaster, Its Aftermath, and Our Future, said the improvements are good, and long overdue, but not enough. He said statistics back up that conclusion, if you look at them honestly.
The number of hazardous incidents at offshore well in the Gulf dropped about 14 percent last year compared to 2009, Deans noted. The number of wells that pumped oil and gas dropped almost 20 percent during the same period, he said. The number of incidents at each of the remaining wells increased more than 7 percent, Deans explained.
“That’s not getting safer, not really,” he said.” It’s like saying there are fewer concussions in football games, but there are fewer games played. What this tells us is that no matter what they do, it’s going to a dirty and dangerous business, something we need to be getting out of, not something we need to be expanding.”
Deans also worries that not enough attention is being paid to the potential damage to rigs from hurricanes. For example, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 damaged 67 platforms and rigs, according to federal estimates. Hurricane Ivan a year earlier destroyed seven offshore platforms damaged 100 underwater.
According to an Associated Press story on April 2016, 28 Taylor Energy Co. offshore wells buried by a mudslide caused by during Ivan were still leaking oil this year. AP said that according to the U.S. Coast Guard, since last September 2014, the estimated daily volume of oil discharged from the site has ranged from roughly 42 gallons to 2,329 gallons, with a daily average of more than 84 gallons.
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