Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Improving Transocean

The UK's Health and Safety Executive has confirmed to Medawar that:

"In the UK Continental Shelf, the operator of a drilling rig has a general duty to control the risk of major accidents and comply with statutory provisions. It is most likely that the stated alarm systems will form part of a duty holders major hazard risk control measures. If these control measures are inhibited, in by-pass, or in silent logging modes during operations with risks of major accidents without other effective measures in place then it is likely they would be in breach of health and safety legislation."

Bad news for Transocean and the company's worldwide policy of turning safety alarms off at night to make things quieter in the control room! Deepwater Horizon had alarms that would automatically close vents to stop explosive gas mixtures penetrating to habitation and control modules of the rig. They turned them off. Mr Obama still thinks that BP is solely to blame for everything.

This link is to Transocean's Improvement Notices on the HSE website. They range from being told to make it possible for people to move around a rig without breaking their necks, to a more serious and pertinent issue regarding their failure to ensure that Blowout Preventers were correctly interacting with their control panels before installing them on the sea bed. (Some of the reported problems with the Deepwater Horizon BOP could have been in the control panel and they'd have looked the same. This is why it's so much better to test it thoroughly while you can still see both ends rather than having to make too many assumptions.)

The range of notices, too, indicates a progression from something major with a risk of wide-ranging catastrophe, to smaller (but potentially lethal to individuals) faults with walkways. This suggests that the regulator was regulating, and that his inspections were thorough and persistent enough to uncover the small details as well as the headline-grabbers. Even when the HSE found a headline-grabbing fault, they still went on looking for little faults as well. It would be a pity if the new Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, were, in his zeal to increase the frequency of oil rig inspections, to inadvertently force the inspectors to be less thorough and persistent.

The whole process, in the UK, is geared towards improvement rather than blame. It is not only more thorough than historical American regulation, but decidedly more constructive, too. Transocean shareholders might also note that they are almost certainly paying less compensation to widows from their North Sea operations than from their Gulf of Mexico operations, which is why only an idiot lobbies and bribes against reasonable regulation.

Meanwhile, it seems that BP, despite being "British", has stemmed the flow of oil in about half the time it took to cap the Ixtoc I oilspill which was in significantly shallower water.

The flow of oil continues, however, as an American tug has skillfully decapitated another well, abandoned two years ago by an American company. Something to spend BP's $20bn on now that "America's worst ever environmental disaster" seems to be petering out with a fraction of the predicted damage.

In fact, the amount of oil reaching the shore is less, so far, than the Amorco Cadiz disaster, which an American court eventually valued at $200M, Amorco paying nothing whatsoever in the twelve years it took to reach this decision. BP paid out ten times as much in the first month -and was fiercely condemned from every side of the American media and politics for its penny-pinching tardiness.

For the record, no oilspill in history has ever done anything like as much environmental harm as the US Department of Agriculture did when it told farmers in Oklahoma to plough their pastures, sow wheat and await prosperity. This resulted in a dustbowl which caused one of the biggest forced migrations of the 20th century, as American farming communities had to leave their now uninhabitable homes.

For all those who think this was a PR disaster for BP: America has done herself no favours whatsoever, not just in the UK, but worldwide, as the gulf between what America demands and what America does becomes ever more painfully apparent.

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