Another thing that happened while I was tromping around one of the most beautiful places on earth (Yosemite) is that the BP drilling rig that had an explosion and fire last week sunk and oil has started to spill into the Gulf (as this dramatic NASA picture makes clear). In the last day, the Minerals Management Service (one of the federal agencies that regulate offshore drilling) has released documents showing that BP was cited in 2007 for training problems related to a similar problem in 2002.
BP Exploration & Production, which owns the deep water rig that exploded last week in the Gulf of Mexico, was cited in 2007 for inadequately training employees in well control, according to the US Minerals Management Service.
The conditions of the training are the same as those suspected in the possible blowout aboard the TransOcean Deepwater Horizon, which left 11 workers missing and presumed dead.
MMS slapped BP with $41,000 in fines in October 2007 after a series of violations related to a near-blowout five years earlier. In November 2002, the Ocean King rig, operated by Diamond Offshore Drilling, in the Gulf had to evacuate all 65 of its workers for nearly two days after operators detected a dangerous rise in gas pressure. The rig, which had been drilling at a depth of more than 5,000 feet, didn’t resume work for nearly a week, according to the MMS report.
Unlike last week’s disaster, workers were able to keep the well from leaking by using cement and mud to plug the well. The same subcontractor, Diamond Offshore, was also used when BP was fined $25,000 in 2004 for bypassing a gas detection system while drilling. A BP spokesman in London says the company still uses Diamond Offshore as a contractor.
KEY SAFETY PROCEDURES
In the 2002 incident, the MMS said that BP and Diamond Offshore were unaware that some of the key safety procedures they used to initially stop the dangerous rise in pressure could have contributed to a blowout. The MMS cited BP for what it called “no formal procedures” and “no written guidelines” to follow in case of an emergency. MMS also cited BP and contract workers in the incident for what they said was a “lack of knowledge of the system, and lack of pre-event planning and procedures.”
Let me give some background on this. In the 1990s, I worked for a company that consulted on safety procedures for the oil industry (a writer who reported to me did some procedures for one Amoco refinery, which was subsequently purchased by BP; we bid on, but did not get, a job that included BP; and we did some procedures for a drilling entity that has since been purchased by Halliburton, which is involved here as well). The way in which the government forces oil companies to operate in ways which minimize the safety and environmental danger of inherently dangerous processes is to ask (either nicely or by mandating) a set of procedures to cover both normal and emergency procedures. It’s a way of setting up documented procedures which can be trained and audited; the procedures allow the government to check whether the operators are operating as safely as possible. Just as importantly, it’s a way of proactively making sure that in case something does go badly wrong, the operator in question–and more importantly, the workers actually doing the work–will have a way of figuring out what to do quickly enough so as to minimize the safety and environmental damage.
MMS is saying that in 2002, BP not only had none of these procedures, but it hadn’t trained the workers and contractors on the rig, and as a result, the workers did the wrong thing to contain the damage. BP got lucky in 2002, because doing the wrong thing did not exacerbate the problems.