Preliminary CSB Reports Blame BP and Transocean Safety Gaps for Deepwater Horizon Accident and Gulf Spill
The preliminary results of the Chemical Safety Board's (CSB) investigation into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and subsequent oil spill (the worst offshore accident recorded in U.S. history) have faulted BP and Transocean for the disaster. Essentially, the report concludes, by focusing on the wrong indicators of safety, the two companies, and the offshore industry in general, allowed indicators of danger at the drilling site to proceed unchecked until disaster was inevitable.
The Chemical Safety Board is the last of the federal agencies to investigate the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon incident. Typically, the agency investigates accidents at chemical plants and refineries, but the federal government asked the CSB to look into the BP explosion due to their successful investigation into an explosion at the onshore BP Texas City refinery in 2005. Safety recommendations made by the CSB in the wake of that accident have resulted in "significant progress" in tracking and preventing safety concerns in onshore refining. The CSB can only make safety recommendations; it cannot issue citations.
In exploring the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 rig employees, the CSB determined that the offshore industry has been focusing on the wrong type of data to prevent accidents at drill sites and oil wells. While companies like BP have been focused on personal injury prevention, the CSB says they should instead have been concentrating on factors which better indicate the likelihood of a Deepwater Horizon-type disaster, namely process safety problems like safety equipment maintenance and kicks (incidents when oil, natural gas or other fluids enter wells).
In documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle, the CSB concludes that "BP, Transocean, industry associations and the regulator did not effectively learn critical lessons of Texas City and other incidents. A key lesson not implemented was that preventing major accidents requires a specific focus on process safety management over and above conventional personal safety."
The report further concludes that "BP and Transocean had multiple safety management system deficiencies that contributed to the Macondo incident." According to data collected for the report, BP audited the Deepwater Horizon, which it leased from Transocean, in 2007, but most of the safety recommendations it made related to personal safety concerns involving scaffolding, equipment calibration and proper labeling of tanks.
Transocean made its own safety assessment of the rig in 2004, also placing an emphasis on personal safety issues. No recommendations were made to address major accident risks, such as gas escaping from the wells the rig was drilling. About a month before the blowout at the Macondo well that triggered the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the well experienced a kick that went unnoticed for 33 minutes, the report revealed. Because there were no requirements for reporting kicks or other similar safety concerns, no safety process changes were made in the wake of the incident. On the night of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, a kick went undetected for 40 minutes, only being discovered when it was too late to stop the tragic blowout's progress.
In contrast to the lax safety reporting requirements in the U.S., Australian and Norwegian authorities require every well kick to be reported and tracked. The two governments also require drillers to report any hydrocarbon release at a well site, no matter how small. According to a paper by Andrew Hopkins, a professor at the Australian National University, tracking these incidents and identifying how quickly crews respond to them could give regulators a better idea of industry's ability to respond to actual risks. Identifying short comings before disasters could prevent major incidents like the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
These preliminary CSB findings were released at a two day hearing, held in Houston on July 23 and 24, into the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon accident and the BP Texas City explosion. The CSB is expected to announce specific offshore industry safety recommendations later this year.