Monday, May 10, 2010

Challenges for offshore oil and gas production

by Peter Stern

One of the greatest challenges for offshore oil and gas production is to preserve our fragile ecosystem and to protect humans, wildlife and natural vegetation throughout the world. Safety guidelines and regulations have been developed and documented for all offshore drilling companies, In addition, in most cases there is government oversight to ensure that oil companies are abiding by the regulations; however, as may be seen by the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and also from the several incidents during the past several decades, that accidents continue to happen --- mostly due to lax government enforcement of the regulations and the company's inability or conscious effort not to follow all the safety mechanisms in place and to ensure that safety equipment is in good working order. Approximately 20 years ago the Exxon Valdez, the company's storage tanker, was involved in an avoidable accident in its transportation of oil. The human element in part for the tragedy was determined to be the Captain's alcohol consumption. We are in the 21st Century and by now we all know the risks of offshore drilling and transport of oil, yet many of those in charge of oil drilling and transportation have acted irresponsibly in complying with the rules of safety.

Last week another oil tragedy occurred when an offshore oil rig operated by British Petroleum (BP) exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 of the crew members and spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into surrounding waters. Immediately the fail safe mechanism called the Blowout Protecter (BOP) should have been engaged first by the drilling crew, which maintains ongoing random BOP safety drills during regular operations that include activating the BOP to shutdown the drilling rig that prevents spilling oil into deep waters. Since 11 of the crew had been killed by the explosion and could not activate the BOP, there are two additional backup mechanisms to activate the BOP, one of which includes a “dead man’s switch” that is supposed to activate automatically and there is another access to the BOP via a remote electronic device. The BOP was not engaged and BP has no explanations.

BP is telling the public that the explosion is unexplainable so far and that the company does not know why the BOP was not engaged. During the past several decades British Petroleum has not been an exemplary oil drilling company. Approximately 20 years ago 14 members of a BP drilling crew were killed from an explosion on a similar rig to the one last week that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has not issued a statement of its responsibility for this tragedy, but it also never pleaded guilty or admitted to its responsibility for the former oil rig accident mentioned and for other incidents. BP also has a history of being caught and fined for safety violations that have been thought of by many in the field as avoidable and caused with prior knowledge. In short, there are many who believe that BP is more interested and motivated by profits than it is to ensure the safety of the environment and its personnel.

It should be quite obvious by now that British Petroleum is not following the safety regulations and standards most other oil companies abide by. The company is responsible for the death of its personnel and it has directly caused the oil spill that still is dumping millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This is exactly the scenario and the reason that the safety rules and regulations were developed and are provided for oil companies drilling for offshore production. The safety regulations are supposed to prevent the oil spills. Once the spill occurs, it is a losing proposition for the company and the environment.

In the aftermath of the explosion and oil spill BP is now spending billions of dollars to try to contain the spill. It is using chemicals that attach to the surface oil to try to keep the surface slick from spreading further out to sea and closer to land. There are floating beams used to encircle the spill and to keep the slick from extending. BP is currently using robotic submarines that are supposed to shut off the flow valves on the pipes producing the majority of the spillage. BP also designed and is building a huge capping device that no one has any idea if it will work in such deep waters. Another attempt to quell the spill is to use another drilling rig and to drill on an angle into the pipes that are the main source of the leak to divert the leak through the new pipes and into a floating vessel to haul off the oil spill. Fighting to contain an oil spill is a challenge that can be avoided with the proper safety regulations and making sure that safety devices are in the best working status for when they are needed. It is too late after an explosion occurs and during an oil spill.

The bottom-line is that engineers and many others have designed many safety mechanisms that are a challenge to prevent spill of intense proportions, such as the current one in the Gulf of Mexico, and yet BP is one of the companies that seems to have an ongoing problem adhering to the safety regulations and keeping safety equipment in working order. While other companies view the safety regulations as a necessary part of the cost of drilling, which ensures a better control over the process and to protect the environment and human life, British Petroleum has failed time and again as a safety conscious oil company and the public needs to know that those in charge of drilling and enforcement oversight of the industry will make an example of BP. It is time to make sure that all oil companies accept the challenges inherent for offshore gas and oil production.

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