GULF SPILL:

Federal investigators find oil industry failing to learn from past disasters

Independent federal experts investigating the blowout aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig are finding major parallels between this year's disaster and a 2005 blast that killed 15 workers at a BP PLC refinery in Texas -- indicating the industry has failed to overhaul safety rules, they said today.

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB), a 20-year-old agency created to examine industrial accidents, is inquiring into the demise of the now-infamous Gulf of Mexico rig alongside the Interior Department and other arms of the government. At a public hearing today, CSB lead investigator Don Holmstrom raised pointed questions about whether the same risk-management failures identified during the board's probe of the 2005 BP blast were behind the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

"Despite significant progress, not all the lessons of Texas City and other CSB investigations have been effectively implemented by the oil industry," Holmstrom said.

Despite the industry's small footprint in CSB's jurisdiction, he added, "a serious problem" is clear given that more than half the probes still open at the board deal with oil companies.

Holmstrom stressed that he could only address "emerging issues" as the Deepwater Horizon investigation gets under way, avoiding any "preliminary findings" that could directly rap any player in the accident. But the small board has acquired an outsized profile in the Gulf postmortem, thanks to a mission that requires it to operate apart from other agencies whose ties to the oil industry have drawn significant scrutiny since the April blowout on the rig.

A behind-the-scenes clash last month between CSB and the joint investigative team led by the Coast Guard and Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) over the process for testing the blowout preventer from the Deepwater Horizon was ultimately resolved but not before a two-month delay in the forensic inquiry (Greenwire, Nov. 12). Indeed, BOEMRE chief Michael Bromwich declined CSB's invitation to appear before its hearing today, suggesting that CSB may still be ruffling feathers elsewhere in the government.

Despite BP's image as a poster child for stronger regulation, CSB Managing Director Daniel Horowitz said the company has not lagged behind others in the industry in terms of processing previous safety recommendations.

"BP has taken some steps," Horowitz said, though "not as many as we would have hoped back in 2007" when the board concluded its inquiry into the 2005 refinery accident.

The safety board is not yet ready to identify the root causes behind the Deepwater Horizon blast, whether dealing with BP or any other party involved, he added.

International perspective

As part of its hearing today, CSB members heard from oil-safety regulators from the United Kingdom, Australia and Norway, three nations that reformed their risk-management systems in the wake of major accidents in the energy sector.

Several board members homed in on the "safety case" standard adopted by all three testifying nations, which would put more onus on oil companies to assess specific accident scenarios and outline targeted plans for prevention. Yet the "safety case" also would rely on greater collaboration between regulators and the industry, exemplified by retired Australian offshore safety chief John Clegg's testimony that "we don't go offshore unannounced."

That practice would appear to dispute the rationale behind a recent call for more surprise inspections by the Interior Department inspector general (Greenwire, Dec. 8).

Sharing more accident data, as well as expanding the industry's safety focus beyond mere prevention of slips and falls, were among the priorities CSB identified during its probe of the 2005 Texas City blast. Clegg and Ian Whewell, retired director of the offshore division at the U.K. Health and Safety Executive, told board members that they too encountered oil-industry resistance to more transparency.

Oil companies "seem to have particular difficulties sharing information, even on something as critical as safety," Whewell said. "I found it over many years a mystery ... there's no great commercial advantage in not sharing safety data."

Another hot topic among board members was the value of separating health and safety from what CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso termed "the economic aspect" of regulating the oil industry.

Clegg said his nation's offshore safety agency was "purposely set up as a totally independent authority" from counterparts who deal with development of natural resources. "Operating in that bubble," he added, made Australian regulators more effective.

CSB is slated to hear from U.S. oil industry and union representatives later today.

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