Offshore Rigs Still Susceptible to Catastrophic Accidents
Much has been made recently about the improvements in safety that the oil industry has made since the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion just over five years ago. That explosion and ensuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that took nearly three months to be capped, cast doubt amongst the general public and federal regulators that the industry was ever truly prepared to prevent catastrophic offshore events or contain ones that do occur.
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the federal government instituted a moratorium on all offshore drilling. The moratorium would allow regulators and oil industry executives to put in motion a plan to reduce the risks of offshore drilling and implement new and improved safety protocols to protect offshore workers and the Gulf Coast environment.
Technological Advancements Allow for Better Monitoring
There is no question that much advancement has been made over the last five years. Technology has produced stronger shearing rams that are much better equipped to cap a well in the event of an emergency. Oil companies are able to monitor offshore operations in real time from remote sites located in Houston and other coastal cities. Those control centers are able to intervene in the operations on the offshore rig if something doesn't appear right. Additionally, anyone on the rig now has the authority to shut down operations if they perceive a safety risk.
Focus Remains On Preventing Minor Accidents
Many of the newly created safety measures are focused on preventing day-to-day accidents that are easily seen and measured. This includes things like slip-and-fall cases, dropped objects, welding accidents, and other common hazards found on a rig. While these measures have generally been successful at reducing the number of workplace injuries, they do little to prevent low-probability, high-impact events like the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Continued Threat of Unforeseen Catastrophic Events
Even with the heightened level of safety, offshore rigs still suffers an extra ordinate amount of "close calls." In 2014, there were over one hundred fires and explosions on offshore rigs – all of which could have been catastrophic under slightly different conditions. There were another 25 reports of natural gas escaping the well, but not igniting. Seven rigs lost control of the well. All of these incidents can be precursors to higher impact catastrophes.
It remains a cause for concern that the oil industry continues to underestimate the chances of another low-probability, high-impact event occurring. While oil companies are undoubtedly more prepared to handle a situation identical to that of the Deepwater Horizon, they are beginning to drill at depths far greater than ever before. These new challenges produce greater risks and unforeseen dangers for which the industry is not adequately prepared.