How Can We Make Deepwater Drilling Safer?

Gulf oil rig

In 2005, a Chevron ad offered us these prescient—and surprisingly honest—words: "Energy will be one of the defining issues of this century. One thing is clear: the era of easy oil is over." And as we have seen over the past month and a half, the end of that era has led us to drill in dangerous places without proper safety precautions. So how can we make sure a Deepwater Horizon-like disaster doesn't happen again (besides banning deepwater drilling altogether)?

The focus has to be on creating a "culture of safety," according to a review last month from the Department of the Interior. Their common-sense recommendations include:

  • Mandatory inspection of each blowout preventer (BOP) to be used on floating drilling operations to ensure that the BOP: meets manufacturer design specifications, taking into account any modifications that have been made; is compatible with the specific drilling equipment on the rig it is to be used on...has not been compromised or damaged from previous service; is designed to operate at the planned operating depth.
  • Development of enhanced deepwater well-control procedures.
  • A comprehensive study of methods for more rapid and effective response to deepwater blowouts.
  • Enhanced requirements to improve organizational and safety management for companies operating offshore drilling rigs.
  • New rules requiring that offshore operators have in place a comprehensive, systems- based approach to safety and environmental management.

Many petroleum engineers think that bringing blowout preventers to ocean's surface could make drilling much safer. In such a scenario, one BOP would be located underwater at the wellhead and another would be on the drill rig. The BOP on the drill rig could be tested and inspected regularly. The hitch is that mandatory implementation could halt new drilling operations for years while the technology is developed.

Another option is to upgrade the technology for deepwater leak response from top hats and junk shots to methods that actually work. Again, this could take years. MIT Technology Review explains:

Drilling engineers say the BP accident could finally provide the impetus for deepwater response tools. Funding to perfect some of the schemes that BP has thrown at the spill, they say, should spawn an entire deepwater response industry, analogous to the well-control contractors who secure hundreds of dangerous onshore wells per year worldwide.

What will become of the deepwater drilling industry if it is forced to adopt expensive, advanced safety measures? Oil from deepwater wells might become too expensive to compete on global markets, for one thing. In the end, though, higher oil prices may be worth it if they help us avoid another multi-billion dollar disaster.

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Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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  • Rita Ashley

    The biggest mistake was made early on. As drilling increased, so should have the clean-up technologies and processes. That requirement was not part of the agenda and no watch-dog or political organization was willing to take the risk. Once the first spills killed and destroyed, all drilling should have ceased until the clean up technologies were in place. It is not too late to accomplish that now because if we know only one thing about drilling in sensitive areas, new spills will happen.

  • Just Sayin

    If safety to individuals and the environment are your concern, here is an answer to deep water drilling: call the EPA and tell them to loosen the regulations regarding drilling on land. We are not drilling in deep water, far off sure because there is a shortage of resources, we are drilling out there because there is a shortage of freedom to pursue the ample resources we have in this country.

  • karljeffery

    Better information management - an automated system to determine when decisions need to be made by shore staff away from the stresses of the rig - make it harder to end up in a situation where complex decisions balancing difficult technical questions with financial pressures are made by just one person - better assessment of whether an operation is within a sensible safety parameters and procedures to follow if it isn't - closer working relationships between shore and rig staff, so people are more inclined to ask colleagues for advice if they aren't sure - less obstacles to collaboration between companies (eg insurance companies, who want a system where they can be sure which company is to blame for what)

    And perhaps more importantly - find some way of getting the public to understand and accept that there is some risk associated with every energy supply - and that means there will be accidents. If you ever hear any industry executive say they put 'safety first' think to yourself - if they really put safety in front of everything else, they wouldn't do anything at all. But they can't ever say the truth to the public 'we take a hopefully carefully controlled and small degree of risk to provide you with the product you want' because the public isn't mature enough to accept it.

    Durwin Sharp - if you have any evidence that BP's standards are worse than any other oil major, or indeed any other industry, then please share it, because I haven't seen it, and think it would be unlikely since all the companies share the same contractors, staff often switch between companies, and people meet up to talk about this stuff at conferences. You already have some of the brightest people in the world working under intense pressure, both in terms of money and safety, how would more pressure help things at all? I think you'd just drive the brightest people to find jobs elsewhere.

  • Chris Reich

    There are realities.

    We are still dependent on oil to run cars. Cars are our chief means of transportation. But we could reduce our use of oil---plastic packaging is good start.

    Before we invest billions on new drilling technology, let's spend the money on renewable energy. Renewable energy pays for itself. It might take a long time relative to a hole in the ground producing oil or coal, but certainly the overall impact is less.

    If deep water drilling is really "all that", then make a dual well system mandatory. Uh, we have the technology for that don't we?

    This is an opportunity to scale back. Let's take it. Demand safety. Inspect. Regulate. Do those now. Don't permit deep water drilling. Jobs? If we wake up in time, we can create alternative energy jobs here.

    Chris Reich

  • Daryle Hier

    How Can We Make Deepwater Drilling Safer? Bring it in to shallow water. Quit pushing them out deeper and deeper.

    Better yet, drill on land. How about somewhere it wouldn't harm the public, like, I don't know, an out-of-the-way place that has little or no value - take for instance frozen tundra - Hmmm, oh I know: ANWAR.

  • Durwin Sharp

    I find it disappointing that everyone seems to lump "the oil industry" together with BP, particularly regarding the culture of safety. BP stands out in the industry with more "egregious safety violations" than the rest of the industry combined - hundreds of times worse than the "safest" companies. We should look to solve the safety problems but not paint the entire industry with the same brush.

    It seems to me that one solution would be to indict the top 100 executives/managers in BP for negligent homicide, seek criminal penalties of at least tens of years in jail, and, upon conviction, offer suspended sentences conditional on bringing the safety culture of BP up to scratch: no improvement = remanded to jail. Faced with loss of personal liberty, I think their attention would be more seriously focused on correction than would be the case for the possibility of civil penalties, which BP seems to treat simply as a cost of doing business.

  • gxh

    It should also be noted that Chevron/Texaco acquired key battery patents created by the inventor to power electric cars. A small version of this battery technology is used in the Toyota Prius. When Toyota made plans to use a large version of the batteries to develop electric cars, Chevron/Texaco put a stop to those plans via legal action against Toyota. Toyota was blocked from using those batteries until somewhere after 2012? Why would an oil company who clearly says oil is not going to be so easy to acquire block the world from moving on to other sources of power?????

  • gxh

    As required elsewhere the two side wells (currently being drilled by bp) should be drilled at the same time as the main well. This would eliminate the 4 month delay that BP is facing now to properly cap the well. Assuming no storms interrupt the drilling operations (not likely) the emergency side wells one be completed until some time in August. Had these side wells already been completed as required in some non-US regulated areas the well would have been sealed almost immediately. There would have been no ecological disaster. Further, they did not install a sonic preventer at an additional cost of $500K, a penny-wise-dollar-foolish decision by US oil interests who fought such a regulation. The sonic preventer is designed for such a rig collapse where the preventer typically used no receives power from the surface. A sonic signal is sent through the water and the sonic preventer closes. Simply by using these two techniques required elsewhere in the world would have mitigated the oil breech to a loss of life tragedy rather than a loss of life and ecosystem tragedy.

  • Whys Alives

    If this were China, the CEO of BP would literally be facing possible execution. Personally, I think that would do a lot to keep things like this from happening in the first place.