In the Arctic, disaster prevention via behavioral science

Understanding management systems takes on new significance after Macondo

November 07, 2011

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Can behavioral science prevent a repeat of the tragic blowout and oil spill that killed 11 rig workers last year in the Gulf of Mexico? The question is one of many being weighed by Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) as part of an ongoing review of the hazards, risks and mitigation measures associated with drilling offshore in the Canadian Arctic.

“Behavioral issues are important, because behavior turns systems and procedures into reality,” says a report submitted to the federal regulator under the title Changing Minds; A Practical Guide for Behavioral Change in the Oil and Gas Industry. “It is not enough for an organization to have good systems, because performance is determined by how organizations actually ‘live’ or ‘act out’ their systems.”

The prescription is not at all frivolous. In a separate report submitted to the NEB offshore review, Norwegian risk-management specialists Det Norske Veritas highlight the role “systemic organizational deficiencies” played in a series of fatal disasters, ranging from the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 to the collapse of the Ocean Ranger drilling platform in the icy waters offshore Newfoundland and Labrador in 1982.

Described in the document as the largest self-propelled, semi-submersible offshore drilling unit of its era, the Ocean Ranger, officially launched in 1976, began drilling in the vicinity of the Hibernia oil field on the Grand Banks in 1980. It was owned by Ocean Drilling and Exploration Co. (ODECO), which operated the rig on behalf of Mobil Oil Canada Ltd. None of the 84 crew survived after the rig capsized and sank in a storm on February 15, 1982. Officials determined it went under after seawater entered the ballast control room through a broken porthole, causing an electrical breakdown that affected stability.

Much like in the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon accident, Newfoundland’s offshore tragedy initially raised questions about the technical capacity to drill in harsh maritime environments. But unlike the BP incident, the Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster ultimately determined the shortcomings onboard had little to do with technology. “The failure of the crew to adopt and follow a proper and prudent operation practice … allowed the first link in the chain of events to be forged,” the report stated.

Among deficiencies cited by the Royal Commission and recalled by Det Norske was a lack of adequate marine training for key personnel. Formal training policies at Ocean Drilling and Exploration Co. followed the industry pattern of learning the job “from the bottom up.” No specific training was provided for “abnormal conditions,” and Mobil’s contingency plans, although outlining emergency procedures in case of oil spills, iceberg encroachment, severe weather, loss of a supply vessel and even a helicopter crash, offered no clear procedures on how to evacuate the rig.

Policies that encouraged employees to learn by doing were “not supported by sufficient training measures which showed a lack of commitment to formally improve employees and overall company performance in the area of safety,” Det Norske writes. Severe storm conditions played a role in the tragedy, to be sure. But design shortcomings on the rig were compounded by human error, poor judgment and a lack of marine training, Det Norske says in its analysis. “In effect, the offshore drilling semi-submersible was regarded as an industrial operation in a marine setting with no marine training for its crew.”

Inadequate training likewise contributed to the deaths of 165 crew members out of 226 on an oil platform operated by Occidental Petroleum Ltd. in the North Sea called Piper Alpha. On July 6, 1988, a condensate leak triggered a massive explosion on the platform. In addition to design flaws – including firewalls that could not withstand the pressure of a blast and inadequate fire insulation – an inquiry later found poor communication between shift workers and a lack of site-specific training was in part to blame for the disaster. “The decisions and actions taken by management directly compromised the safety of the platform and its crew,” Det Norske says.

The risk agency offers a similar conclusion in assessing the deaths of 26 miners in the 1992 Westray coal mine explosion in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, and again in the deaths of 15 refinery workers at BP’s Texas City facility in 2005. The theme shows up in filings submitted to the NEB offshore review on behalf of companies actively looking to tap Canada’s Arctic waters. “Human factors are acknowledged to be potential contributing causes to accidents in all offshore operations, not just those in an Arctic environment,” ConocoPhillips Canada says in a written submission to the board.

But a potential lapse is no reason to implement a temporary or long-term moratorium on Beaufort Sea drilling, Imperial Oil Ltd. contends. Both Conoco and Imperial have joined Shell Canada Ltd. and Chevron in urging the board to drop a requirement compelling them to drill a same-season relief well to protect against a blowout. Imperial has dismissed the provision as “neither practical nor necessary,” while Conoco, in filings with the board, maintains relief wells offer “little real protection to the environment since a significant spill would likely occur before a relief well could be drilled.”

Among other technical safeguards against disaster, Imperial instead points to a track record of 80-plus years operating in harsh northern conditions – dating back to its 1920s pioneer discovery at Norman Wells – without incident. Time will tell whether the company can trade on its name alone in the post-Macondo era.

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