The BP oil disaster: Learning from past mistakes

The day was April 20, 2010, 11 crew members died, and 17 more were injured as the Macondo well exploded in the Mexican Gulf.  The tragedy that struck two years ago and is popularly known as the BP Oil Spill had little impact on crude oil prices, but its huge effect on safety and the environment had paved the way for concerned sectors to step up safety measures.

Director Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute discussed the birth of the Center for Offshore Safety (COS), and brought to light the efforts being made to enhance safety standards.

Former Head of the United States Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Michael Bromwich, recognized these headways but emphasized that more caution must be exercised, especially now that exploration has moved across lucrative oil investment regions like the Arctic.

Bromwich gave a talk during a meeting called for by the Center for Strategic International Studies.  In this forum, he shared important lessons from the past, particularly of the April 20, 2010 Macondo well blowout that heavily affected investments in the Gulf’s fishing industry.

“Investments in environmental protection must keep pace with advancing technology and continued ambition to move into the frontier areas.”  Bromwich quoted that both government and industry failed in this area. Industry needs to focus on creative ways to share innovations in safety, both with each other and with the government.

While it was not brought up in Bromwich’s talk, an exchange of relevant data between the state and the industry actually comprises one of COS’ plans.  Historical information on actual “near blowouts” will be compiled and later shared so that authorities would be able to point out likely scenarios that could trigger such catastrophes.

“There needs to be a stepped-up research program on the specific challenges that are posed by frontier environments, the Arctic region being a classic example of such environs. Creative steps are needed to bolster the technical expertise of government through exchange programs with other countries and exchange programs with industry. There needs to be renewed and continued focus on the recruitment of engineers, who will work with and for the government. Even in an era of government austerity…focus needs to be given on assuring adequate funding for the regulatory agencies.”

While Bromwich observed that regulatory agencies are now being given better financial support, he fears that people may soon forget the previous crisis and its consequences as the years pass.  He emphasized the need for a tough and effective regulatory body.

“There is a need for greater global cooperation on prevention, on containment and on spill response. This is not a Gulf of Mexico issue, it’s not an Arctic issue, it’s a worldwide issue.”

By Chris Termeer