Canadian Consulting Engineer

Feature

Gulf of Mexico shows folly of complacency

In early June oil was continuing to pour from the Deep Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico. The black muck had spread from the ocean floor affecting an area almost the size of Florida and was drifting ...




In early June oil was continuing to pour from the Deep Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico. The black muck had spread from the ocean floor affecting an area almost the size of Florida and was drifting towards the beaches of that state. British Petroleum was trying another clumsy attempt to plug the gushing hole, and the Unified Command overseeing the disaster had resorted to asking the public for “suggestions” on how to stem the flow. The latest bright idea gaining popularity was to detonate a nuclear bomb deep in the earth in hopes that the heat would cause some kind of geological fusion that would seal up the well. Meanwhile the oil, freed from its underground canyon, continued to flow at the rate of up to 40,000 barrels a day.

Is this disaster an engineering fiasco, or was the explosion on board the rig and the resulting broken well-head caused by corporate irresponsibility? Someone gave the order to continue drilling on April 20, even though there were apparently warning signs of trouble. And while full investigations are pending, it sounds like problems had surfaced well before then. A New York Times article of May 20 based on 50,000 documents obtained from U.S. Congressional investigators, said that BP had recorded the blowout preventer leaking several times in March, and engineers had expressed concerns about the strength of the well casing last year. During drilling, U.S. regulators had been too quick to go along with BP’s requests, and had acquiesced to delaying tests, or had quickly provided permits (within 10 minutes on one occasion) when the company encountered problems.

Watching the news reports was deeply troubling, but most of all, I felt anger and outrage that such an incident could take place.

What kept coming to mind is the phrase “risk management,” the business practice corporations today are so careful to follow. No doubt BP has a risk management strategy. In planning the Deepwater Horizon project, someone counting the beans had calculated that even in a worst case scenario, the company would only be liable to pay $75 million as compensation under U.S. law.

There are some risks that are just too great to “manage.” There are risks that can cause devastation to life and the planet on an unimaginable scale. Offshore oil and gas exploration is already high-risk, and the new deep ocean drilling is delving into uncharted waters. Regulators needed to be doubly cautious and were not. Engineers needed to be more circumspect and if they saw potential dangers, they needed to speak out publicly. They did not. The result is the biggest environmental disaster in North American history.

By coincidence we have an article in this issue of about how the offshore oil and gas industry in Newfoundland has provided business for local consulting engineers (p. 23). Since that article was written, news broke that Chevron is drilling the first deep ocean oil well in the Atlantic off Newfoundland, one that is 1,000 metres deeper than the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon. Canadians need to take a good look at our regulatory controls for these high risk operations, because at the moment they seem surprisingly lax.