Understanding Macondo

Jun 2011

Mike Simpson is CEO at Cansco Well Control in Dubai and has been described as a “renaissance man” of the drilling industry.  In this compelling and at time, moving account, he offers a fascinating insight into the 2010 Macondo tragedy.  He talks about the lessons learned, the need for educating the public and how the industry can and should, move on.

 “On receiving the first news and images of the Macondo incident I had an immediate flashback to when and where I had heard the first report of the Piper Alpha disaster.  Shortly before midnight on July 6th 1988 I had just finished my shift on an offshore drilling and production platform in the North Sea when the first news of the Piper Alpha incident came through.

In the following hours and days, those initial memories were forced deeper as I learned that included in the long casualty list were some friends and acquaintances I had made in my then short career in the offshore drilling business.

Working on and around drilling rigs all of my working life I can testify to a shared spirit amongst the teams whose job it is to construct and maintain the wells that initiate the long and transformational journey of oil and gas into our everyday life.

This spirit was shaken to its core on the eve of 20th April 2010, in particular as the event at Macondo was related to the consequences of an uncontrolled release of well fluids at surface.

An uncontrolled release, or blowout, has by far the greatest potential consequences of any hazard associated with live well activity and therefore requires the greatest level of consideration and attention during each planning and operational step.  This is to ensure that the well remains in control at all times and, most importantly, the risk to personnel is minimised.

That a well control event in today’s technological era could lead to the loss of so many people, with the potential to take so many more lives, was a body blow felt by the drilling community around the world.

Hazards to people and the environment exist in every industry, with drilling for oil and gas no exception. Oil and gas has been extracted from the ground for centuries and the basic principles of well control have been understood for almost as long.

As the frontiers of drilling have pushed towards more challenging oil and gas reservoirs, characterised by extreme pressures and temperatures, and more challenging operating environments, characterised by extreme water depths and sea states, so well control has evolved to meet these challenges.

Well control is a huge subject, extending way beyond a common perception that it is simply a package of equipment deployed on a well to safely isolate the well in the event of an emergency. There are well control considerations for every step of every activity of live well work, and those considerations have been carefully assessed, updated and enhanced to meet the requirements of today’s most challenging wells.

In my time I have seen well control equipment, processes systems and procedures all move forward and the industry commitment to continue the improvement in these areas is unquestionable.

There is no doubt in my mind that the proper application of the appropriate well control tools available to the industry today can deliver safe well activity, and that events such as the Macondo incident should never happen.

The difference between a safe and unsafe outcome is influenced by human behaviour.  In general, workplace attitude influences behaviour which in turn influences work-place culture and it is in the area of human behaviour that I believe many of the corrective actions emanating from the Macondo incident will relate.

There is no doubt that statistically speaking drilling operations, as compared with many other industries, can be considered “safe”. However like many of my colleagues in the drilling industry I cannot accept that only having a “relatively small” number of fatalities, or even injuries, means that we are safe.  To do so would be an insult to those who have been killed or injured, and therefore I continue to do whatever I can to contribute to improving the safety of drilling operations.

This does not mean we shouldn’t recognise the huge industry wide safety efforts and the resulting safety performance improvements that have been achieved in recent decades.

The opinion that one fatality, or even on injury, is one too much is shared widely across the drilling industry and the general ongoing safety improvement efforts support this. The industry safety effort is one the general public should take confidence from, however the industry has not been so effective in the public promotion of its safety successes.

Human behaviour was a major factor in the Macondo incident, as it is in nearly every well site incident that results in a loss of some form.  To remove the Macondo incident from the statistics and hail that apart from an occasional “anomaly” the industry is safe would be wrong, and detrimental to the essential efforts required to motivate the industry to pursue further improvements.

As much as I empathized with people’s need to immediate answers to the many issues arising from the Macondo incident, I believe that there was a lot of misinformation and, at time, misuse of information following the event.

I can only applaud the commitment and efforts of the main players involved with the incident in their resolution of the immediate consequences in what turned out to e a very challenging endeavour in a very public arena.

People don’t only need information they also need facts.  Unfortunately the facts surrounding the Macondo incident are many and complex, requiring time and dedicated effort to establish.

As the facts become clear I trust that they be given the same public platform as the initial headlines and associated opinions, and a fair and accurate understanding of what went wrong as well as what went well be established well beyond the boundaries of the industry and the regulative environment in which it operates.  A better-informed public is an essential step in the reparation of the Macondo incident.”

I can probably sum up the majority of the post Macondo industry changes aimed at improving well control throughout the full activity program on a well as “verification measures to provide assurance that what we way we do is right and that we do what we say we do”.   As mentioned I believe adequate technical and system measures exist to achieve effective control on every well, however the challenge is, and will always be, people.

It is recognised that the prevailing culture at Macondo contributed to an accumulation of failures and a sequence of circumstances that resulted in a catastrophe.  Effective work cultures are essential, and start with the correct attitude.

Attitudes are changing and the supply of well control packages we are seeing greater recognition of well control equipment as safety critical, commanding a higher priority of care and attention over other well site equipment.

Enforcement of existing standards are more commonplace in the industry now than a year ago, and additional verification measures are being implemented to further assure the integrity of well control equipment plays its part in managing risk at the well site.

The term “Big Bad Oil” has been influencing attitudes for decades and it is just as emotive today as it was when it was first coined.  Only incremental changes in attitude towards the oil industry can be achieved by explaining past events or dwelling on the technicalities of the industry.  Greater and more positive attitude changes are possible by promoting the industry’s role in creating a better future.

Well control is an important part of the safe systems of work employed during any well activity.  However people just want to know that the systems are sufficiently effective such that people, the environment or their livelihood will not be harmed.

Piper Alpha sparked the last shift change in industry safety and I hope that post-Macondo will see an equally positive industry change. Operators and Contractors realised quite some time ago that the real barrier to performance improvement is not technical, but cultural.

It’s more about the soft stuff than the hard steel, an approach sometimes considered alien to the macho world of drilling.  However the precedent has already been set in some parts of the post Piper Alpha world with the results to back it up.

Good well control is good risk management, and a post-Macondo world will benefit from the implementation of more effective risk management tools across the industry.

As the industry awaits the final Post Macondo regulatory guidance, well control standards in general continue to improve and appear to be more stringently enforced.   Advances in well control equipment, system and procedure will undoubtedly continue to develop and contribute to safer well activity; however, as I have said, it will be people that will make the greatest impact.

It is in people that the industry has to make the greatest investment to reap the greatest performance rewards.  Advances in technical and other areas must be matched with advances in people.   People development is a subject beyond the scope of this article; however suffice to say good people have good attitudes.

Macondo was a frightening reminder of the cost of not getting safety right.  If getting safety right means old school attitudes and behaviours need to leave on the next helicopter, then so be it.

Energy Life Magazine – June/July 2011