New Macondo Study Coming – Helpful or Too Little Too Late?

The anniversary of the Macondo accident brought an announcement from the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) that it plans to hold a public meeting in Houston on June 5 and release a report on the incident.   According to a statement from the CSB chair, “first two volumes of our four-volume investigation report, covering technical, regulatory, and organizational issues.”

The incident has already been studied by several groups and the findings were consistent enough that it is worth asking what one more study will accomplish.   CSB says it will look at areas that were not adequately covered in other studies:

  1. The publication of new findings concerning the failures of a key piece of safety equipment—the blowout preventer—that was, and continues to be, relied upon as a final barrier to loss of well control
  2. A comprehensive examination and comparison of the attributes of regulatory regimes in other parts of the world to that of the existing framework and the safety regulations established in the US offshore since Macondo.  
  3. In-depth analysis and discussion of needed safety improvements on a number of organizational factors, such as the industry’s approach to risk management and  corporate governance of safety management for major accident prevention, and  workforce involvement through the lifecycle of hazardous operations.

What does all that mean?   CSB has already tipped its hand a little on a couple of those points.   First, on the blowout preventer – Most of the studies of Macondo have focused on what might have gone wrong with the upkeep or use of the BOP, particularly test results that indicated that high pressure fluids rising up from the  well pushed the drill pipe off center.     For some time there have been rumblings that the CSB’s investigation was  pointing it in a different direction.   It is not known whether CSB is still pursuing an alternate theory of why the BOP failed but, if so, it would open new areas of study.

Second, Safety Case – This approach is used in the North Sea, but has largely been pushed to the side in the U.S.   CSB has sponsored a number of studies on the use of safety cases.  Chances are great that CSB will recommend the adoption of that approach.

How much impact will this report have?   Hard to say.  the CSB is a new government agency that is still trying to establish its role.   On the technical side, industry is likely to argue that CSB is a latecomer to the design and use of BOPs.  On the safety case side, other agencies like BSEE and the Coast Guard are already moving forward with their regulations to address Macondo.  As one expert said at a joint agency listening session on performance-based standards, “Since we still haven’t fully implemented our own safety management approach, how can we say it doesn’t work and that we should abandon it for the safety case approach?”

CSB said the results would be released at the June 5 meeting, but it has not announced the time or place.

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