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Deepwater Horizon: Taking the lessons to heart

Much effort has been devoted to learning from the Deepwater Horizon accident. The PSA has already identified three key areas where action is needed to help reduce major accident risk on the NCS.

This article was published in the magazine "Safety - status and signals 2011-2012"

Eleven people died when the semisubmersible rig caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Mexico during April 2010. Many more were seriously injured, and a huge oil spill was caused.

Soon after the accident, the PSA established an internal cross-disciplinary project team to learn from it and to identify similarities and differences with other serious incidents. The goal has been to develop the best possible basis for improving the authority’s supervision and to implement measures which can enhance HSE in the Norwegian petroleum sector.

An initial report from the project last summer drew on findings to date by the various investigations as well as assessments from professional bodies and national and international processes.

“One of the key conclusions is that this disaster must also be seen as a wakeup call for Norway’s petroleum industry,” says Hilde-Karin Østnes, head of the Deepwater Horizon (DwH) project.

“Lessons learnt from it and other major accidents must be used to improve management of major accident risk in order to achieve more robust solutions on the NCS.”

By “more robust”, she means built-in safety margins which allow the relevant activity to withstand errors, breakdowns, unexpected conditions and emergencies. The DwH accident also confirms the PSA’s repeated argument that fewer personal injuries are not the same as less risk of major accidents. Findings from several incidents in recent years support that view.

On the basis of its initial DwH report, the PSA has identified three main subjects the industry needs to tackle:

Organisation and management
Organisation Post-DwH investigations identified management failures at various levels and at different stages of the incident. These were reflected in decisionmaking and prioritisation processes, management of expertise, and operational changes which led to unclear allocations of responsibility and authority.

In addition came failures to communicate and share information within companies and between operator and contractors, and management priorities driven by short-term financial gain.

The PSA report on the accident addresses a number of issues and challenges related to organisation and management which are relevant for the Norwegian petroleum sector. These apply not only at industry and company level, but also to relations between companies in contractual chains.

Risk management
The PSA believes the industry must reassess the way major accident risk is managed. That includes a need to pursue ambitious studies and developments to secure better management tools.

A particular requirement exists to be able to analyse, assess and understand change-related risk in a better way than is the case today. That covers everything from extensive organisational and structural reshaping to variations from plans for implementing individual activities.

Barrier management
In the PSA’s view, the industry needs to develop a more integrated and uniform approach to barrier management, which complies to a greater extent than today with regulatory requirements.

The DwH status report addresses a number of issues and challenges related to managing barriers in the Norwegian petroleum industry. These apply both at the overall level and to the development of better and more specific performance requirements for a number of barrier elements.

The report confirms that industry efforts to put improved barrier management in place must continue to be given a high priority.

Safety challenges in the petroleum industry know no frontiers, and many of the serious incidents investigated by the PSA on the NCS have the same underlying causes as accidents elsewhere. Apart from DwH, these include such disasters as the blowout on the Montara field off Australia in 2009 and the fire at the Texas City refinery in the USA during 2005.

The PSA has spent a number of years monitoring the way company managements work to reduce major accident risk, and this subject remains one of its main priorities for 2012. Technical and operational barriers are another subject which has been given particular attention over a long period, and which retains this high priority in the coming year.

The PSA is also following up the DwH incident through cross-border collaboration in the International Regulators Forum (IRF) and the North Sea Offshore Authorities Forum (NSOAF).

Safety regulators from a number of countries have raised a variety of issues through these arenas, and have joined forces on a number of specific measures and activities. Special responsibility has been assigned by the IRF to the PSA for following up assessments of the functional performance of blowout preventers (BOPs).

A number of investigations and commissions of inquiry were launched in the USA in the wake of DwH to establish the causes of the incident.

Much of this work has been completed. But the PSA will only be able to conclude its own assessment of the accident when all the central investigations and inquiries have reported. This is likely to happen during 2012.

Even when the PSA’s report has been finalised, however, the job will be far from over. It would more correct to say that the work has just begun.

“Continuing to follow up work on the NCS will be important,” Ms Østnes emphasises. “The issue are now identified, and the time has come to roll up our sleeves.

“We must initiate action which involves and commits the industry as far as possible to pursuing a reduction in major accident risk.

“Hopefully, a number of specific measures will be launched during 2012 as a result of the work which has been done in the wake of DwH.”