Commentary: Offshore oil rig safety must be industry's focus

Special to McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 17, 2010 

By Sunday, mud and cement will permanently seal the Macondo Well of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig that blew up on April 20th, killing 11 people. But we can't bury what it uncovered.

The unverified state of sub-sea safety-critical systems poses a looming threat to the men and women working on offshore drilling rigs and production platforms, to the environment, and to the financial security of the oil industry itself.

The mechanical and structural integrity of much of the equipment in deep waters around the world is not being adequately monitored to prevent catastrophe — despite the fact that we have the safe energy technologies needed to do it. And it's creating a serious issue for the world.

There are thousands of working oil rigs and production platforms in the waters of more than half the nations of earth — not to mention an astonishing number of retired structures that have yet to be disassembled and brought back on shore. Increasing numbers of these structures are in waters up to two miles deep. And each is made of numerous safety-critical, aging components that must be monitored continuously to avoid failure.

Additionally, as oil become harder to access, an increasing number of working production platforms are being pushed to their limits, beyond their original intended design, so companies can get as much oil as possible from existing wells.

To say that the oil industry is not already taking preventive measures to ensure the integrity of its underwater equipment would be false.

What is lacking is consistency. Awareness of available technologies often does not exist throughout an entire company. While one decision maker on one rig may understand, value, and use available technologies to maximize equipment and operational safety, within the very same company, on another rig, in another location, the same practices are not followed.

Oil companies can no longer assume that safety-critical, difficult-to-get-to, deepwater equipment is in good condition. They must verify it. If an offshore oil company is taking issues of safety seriously, it will preemptively and regularly check its underwater equipment — just as jet engine airplanes are thoroughly and routinely checked after every flight.

The oil industry must take action of its own accord to make preventive underwater monitoring a priority.

Deepwater "integrity management" needs to be built into annual planning and budgets, as well as daily routines. It needs to be built into the original design process — when companies are just planning a new rig or production platform — so the integrity of underwater equipment can be effectively managed throughout the entire life of the structure.

It not only will only make the offshore environment safer and help avoid catastrophe, but it will bring economic benefits to the industry and its shareholders because it's cost-effective.

What happened in the Gulf of Mexico was an unimaginable tragedy. It must never happen again.

The future of the oil industry must be built on the complete and total commitment to a culture of safety — namely the uniform, routine application of preventive safety measures using the best technologies available.

We're quickly approaching the point where we will have tapped the oil that is "easy" to access. What is left of the world's oil supply is harder to reach, riskier to extract, and resides in more pristine environments.

Now, more than ever, we must ratchet up safety, the routine inspection of underwater equipment, and the sharing of information.

If all goes well, the Macondo Well will be dead on Sunday. We can't afford to let our resolve for safer oil production die with it.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Tony Hall is a marine biologist, inventor, and founder of Welaptega Marine, a Halifax, Nova Scotia-based company. Over the past 20 years, he has worked in offshore environments developing and refining advanced technologies to make oil production safer.

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