- WEB EXCLUSIVE
- PE COFFEEHAUS
First, it seems to be human nature to place the blame for events on a single entity. We want to point our fingers at somebody. But let’s explore what should have happened. I think it is a revealing exercise.
Any company that handles oil products is required by rule to write and implement a Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure Plan (SPCC). This document is similar to a disaster plan in that qualified engineers must review and sign off on the plan. These plans must consider any spill possibility and describe in detail how such occurrences are to be handled to prevent a disaster.
According to an Associated Press news story released May 1, the 2009 exploration plan and environmental impact analysis submitted by BP contained remarks that it was "unlikely, or virtually impossible" for a large crude oil leak to occur and cause major environmental damage. The story did not make it clear if the remarks were contained within the SPCC portion of the impact analysis, which should have been a part of such a document. From just this information, it is easy to just blame the company.
However, from my perspective, an SPCC plan also should have been submitted to an oversight agency. That agency has responsibility to approve such plans before the drill rig should be allowed to become operational. Was this done?
It is my opinion that quality engineering was missing from this plan from the beginning and the oversight agency did not open it for serious review. Thus, the proper questions remained unasked.
Any good SPCC plan will try to determine the most unlikely scenario that could cause a disaster and plan for such an eventuality. To be fair, I have not read the plan nor have I had an opportunity to review operation logs of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig that exploded, leading to this disaster. The company has reported to news agencies that automatic shutoff valve systems were in place and that personnel did attempt to engage them before the craft was abandoned. Remote robots have tried to close the valves manually but have failed. There will be questions later by the legal system such as, are these systems tested, how often and when. They are going to want these valves recovered so they can learn why they failed.
People watching this play out are wondering at some of the decisions such as laying out a half-million dollars worth of containment booms in the surf. Certainly, there were no engineers involved in that call. The wave actions occurring are not uncommon for the area and they are not only washing over the booms but relocating the booms onto the shore. I would think it would be better to place booms either farther out where the waves are more like swells rather than breaking waves and properly anchor them in place, or draw a line in the sand and place them on the beaches after the waves have broken and confine the spill to a more manageable area. Maybe even use both placements. The booms were to be the last line of defense but certainly seem like a waste of time, money and effort now.
The biggest problem generated from this event is the bad reputation that will follow. Oil companies will take the most immediate hit but the consumer will take the largest hit.
Californians refuse to allow oil companies off their shores because of a bad spill that happened in 1969. This was before we had such checks in place such as SPCC plans. However, if companies are not going to properly use them and agencies are not going to properly supervise them, they are useless. There are going to be more rules and regulations now and they are not needed. Those currently in place would have been adequate had they properly been employed.
In the end, this spill will have to be cleaned up. The armies of lawyers that will descend on BP and every company that supplied equipment for the Deepwater Horizon will have to be paid for. These costs will be passed on to the consumer as all of the oil companies will experience higher drilling costs. There will be a bigger push to move more quickly to alternative energy sources, which are more expensive.
There were warning signs available. Counting this spill, the last three major events all have the same name at the head and similar faults. There was a major pipe leak in Alaska because the pipes were not inspected and properly cleaned. There was a major explosion at a Texas refinery because engineering practices were laxed. Now this.
But I think there should be a major introspection by the oversight agencies and not just those involved here. There are still problems across the board. I recall when we (industry) was required to write Right to Know plans and submit them to the local fire department. It became a real joke. The company I worked for at the time took on the responsibility at the corporate level. When we delivered the plans to the fire departments, they looked at us with incomprehension because they were not informed of the requirement and had no idea what to do with the plans. One unnamed fire chief told me that there was no way on Earth that he intended to find the report and read it if he was called to respond to a fire or other emergency. When informed the report was kept in a lockbox at the entrance to the facility for him, he said, "and you want me to stop to read it while your place burns down?"
We can write all the rules we want but without proper training and communication, it all comes down to shoot first and ask questions later. So now we watch our prices skyrocket and lawyers find a new income source.