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Brownlee concerned about safety? Yeah right.

Written By: - Date published: 11:30 am, June 22nd, 2010 - 14 comments
Categories: Mining - Tags: , , ,

The New York Times has a excellent article on the failure of the last line of defense on the sunken Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. But at least the US has some rules about safety requirements – we don’t. It appears that we have Brownlee and the now notorious Ministry for Economic Development* looking at our regulatory framework for guarding our environment.

On 5 May, the New Zealand Herald quoted Brownlee saying:

“New Zealand has very high environmental standards and particularly, safety requirements. Just what happened in the Gulf at the moment seems somewhat unclear and I think the whole of the oil producing world will be wanting to find out exactly what went wrong to make sure that if it was something that can be mitigated against, that’s what happens.”

From the NYT:-

Its very name — the blind shear ram — suggested its blunt purpose. When all else failed, if the crew of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig lost control of a well, if a dreaded blowout came, the blind shear ram’s two tough blades were poised to slice through the drill pipe, seal the well and save the day. Everything else could go wrong, just so long as ‘the pinchers’ went right. All it took was one mighty stroke.

On the night of April 20, minutes after an enormous blowout ripped through the Deepwater Horizon, the rig’s desperate crew pinned all hope on this last line of defense.

But the line did not hold.

An examination by The New York Times highlights the chasm between the oil industry’s assertions about the reliability of its blowout preventers and a more complex reality. It reveals that the federal agency charged with regulating offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service, repeatedly declined to act on advice from its own experts on how it could minimize the risk of a blind shear ram failure.

This article is well worth reading bearing in mind the vast tracts of deep sea that this government is attempting to open up for off-shore oil exploration with tax incentives and what looks like an incredibly  lax regulatory framework. The failures in the Gulf were partially technical – especially with single points of failure on safety devices.

But the main problem with the Deepwater Horizon and other rigs appears to have been exacerbated by a lax enforcement of a regulatory framework about the safety mechanisms that were designed to prevent this type of ecological disaster. Quite simply, even if everything had worked correctly, there was a significant chance that the mechanisms would have been incapable of cutting and sealing the pipe.

In 1990, a blind shear ram could not snuff out a major blowout on a rig off Texas. It cut the pipe, but investigators found that the sealing mechanism was damaged. And in 1997, a blind shear ram was unable to slice through a thick joint connecting two sections of drill pipe during a blowout of a deep oil and gas well off the Louisiana coast. Even now, despite advances in technology, it is virtually impossible for a blind shear ram to slice through these joints. In an emergency, there is no time for a driller to make sure the ram’s blades are clear of these joints, which can make up almost 10 percent of the drill pipe’s length.

It will be worth reading this article to compare it with whatever measures Gerry Brownlee comes up with in his ‘review’ of safety measures for off-shore drilling here. As the coasts of Louisiana through to Texas are now showing, a single failure can cause immense amounts of damage to both the ecology and the economics of vast areas.

Brownlee is known for his dubious, lackadaisical and distinctly non-rigorous approach to economic and risk assessments towards mining and prospecting. This has been displayed in his recent promotion of on-shore mining using mining industry puff figures and virtually no intelligence. So any assurances he comes up with should be looked through closely in view of the data coming from the disaster in the US. After all assurances from the mining industries have a certain degree of self-interest, and with a compliant and pretty lazy minister in charge, you’d have to ask if the depth of investigation is going to be any more than a industry whitewash – eventually destroying coastlines, tourism, and fishing industries.

How lax is our regulatory environment for offshore rig failures? It is simply pathetic. As David Beatson pointed out at Pundit recently.

Maritime New Zealand is currently the core regulator of off-shore petroleum installations. Last week, MNZ environmental analyst Alison Lane said regulations in New Zealand require offshore rig operators to prove they have adequate emergency procedures in place during annual audits, but the rules do not specify what systems are necessary.

Maritime New Zealand has just $12 million worth of oil spill recovery equipment and dispersing chemicals scattered in 20 locations around the country, and three 8.2 metre transportable oil recovery vessels hardly enough to cope with crude oil spewing out of a single malfunctioning deep water wellhead at a rate of up to 3 million litres a day.

As we can now see on a daily basis, deep water drilling is a risky business. New Zealand needs to do more than chant ‘drill, baby, drill’ and count on Brownlee’s Luck.

Of course, since Brownlee is the mining industries friend, one would kind of expect that any ‘review’ of the safety of oil rigs would be a bit of a farce. Just as it was in the US and even that the oil companies appear to have found onerous.

The NYT commented:-

Yet as the industry moves into deeper waters, it is pressing to reduce government-mandated testing of blowout preventers. BP and other oil companies helped finance a study early this year arguing that blowout preventer pressure tests conducted every 14 days should be stretched out to every 35 days. The industry estimated the change could save $193 million a year in lost productivity.

The study found that blowout preventers almost always passed the required government tests — there were only 62 failures out of nearly 90,000 tests conducted over several years — but it also raised questions about the effectiveness of these tests.

‘It is not possible,’ the study pointed out, ‘to completely simulate’ the actual conditions of deepwater wells.

Yeah right – this is from the country that damn near invented off-shore drilling and has probably the most experience of any country in how to manage it – unlike NZ.

New Zealand hardly seems to be in a good condition to have a blowout. The government earned slightly less than one billion NZ dollars from oil and gas revenues last year. BP has (with a bit of urging from Obama) just put aside a preliminary $30 billion US dollars to clean up the oil spill and compensate affected industries.

Perhaps Brownlee spend less time in chasing prospectors and should concentrate on getting the regulatory and inspection regimes up to scratch. The time to do this is before hunting for easy dollars. The cleanup left behind from a single point of failure could be a lot more expensive than we can afford.

But Brownlee is more known for his  bullheaded stupidity than his attention to detail. This is shown in how he is conducting the ‘review’, in a process that seems designed to come up with the optimistic conclusions he ins interested in. With Brownlee and the MED conducting this review of safety, I suspect that the least risky option is to leave the oil in the ground and wait until we get someone competent to conduct the review of drilling and pumping safety.

* Looking at the material from the MED over the last year has become an interesting exercise.  It has been showing strong signs of ministerial abuse with inadequate and sloppy material in several areas (including mining). In fact it is showing the characteristic signs of an organization being run by Management by Tantrum techniques. It is one of the more stupid managerial techniques favored by those more interested in being seen to be working than actually doing the work.

Apparently this style is characteristic of Brownlees. He either completely ignoring specific policies or being all over it and wants everything to be complete immediately. Since that means he isn’t involved in the policy formation, it means he is always ill-prepared, so instead of blaming his own lack of attention – he blames others inside the organization. And I guess no one has told Brownlee the inevitable consequences of this type of abuse on an organization. People start telling you what you want to hear. Everything deteriorates until there is a colossal crash.

14 comments on “Brownlee concerned about safety? Yeah right. ”

  1. Pascal's bookie 1

    I’m sure Gerry will give the co’s the freedom to use Best Practice

  2. precious 2

    Brownlee is ignorant not only of safety, but more critically the looming oil crunch.

    Petrobas has the offshore license to drill near the East Coast. Mr Gabrielli, the CEO of Petrobras, gave a presentation in December 2009 in which he shows world oil capacity, including biofuels, peaking in 2010 due to oil capacity additions from new projects being unable to offset world oil decline rates. ( http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6169 ) He joins other oil CEO’s, Lloyds of London, the US military and a host of other experts pointing to an imminent oil crisis.

    Gabrielli states in his presentation that the world needs oil volumes the equivalent of one Saudi Arabia every two years to offset future world oil decline rates.

    Even if the safety and regulatory issues can be sorted (unlikely) and oil is actually found (even more unlikely) no oil will be flowing from the East Coast for 10 years. We will still pay the world price for any local oil found anyway so we do not escape the severe economic impacts of a world oil crunch.

    As much higher oil prices and fuel shortages loom, Brownlee and his ilk prepare us for this crisis by building more roads! “Bull headed stupidity” is too mild

  3. joe90 3

    Related but I don’t remember whether or not I’ve posted this.

    The REAL REASON behind the BP spill.

    • RedLogix 3.1

      The question of the ‘acoustic switch’ in essence a device to remotely trigger the BOP blind shear rams in the event both the rig control and the local deadman control had failed, would probably not have made any difference in this case. It seems that the BOP blind shears were triggered, but for so far unknown reasons one side of the pair failed to move.

      There is a very long list of failures associated with this disaster; the acoustic switch is not at the top of it.

  4. Brownlee is a complete waste of space as a politician, incompetent, brainless and lazy.
    He has been a leach of the public purse as a MP.

  5. Doug 5

    Once again industry overstates its competence. Lauded best practice is found inadequate again (I still have yet to see it), and the subsequent litigation is just a cost of doing business.

    They must daily thank the lucky stars for the short attention spans of the media and the public and our ability to adapt to declining enviornmental quality while accepting that it is just normal to live in every increasing filth. What Jared Diamond call creeping normalacy.

  6. tsmithfield 6

    Paradoxically, now is probably the safest time ever to start a deep water drilling project. A bit like going on holiday to Bali not long after the bombings. Drillers would be hyper-vigilant at the moment and would take absolutely every precaution to ensure that nothing goes wrong. The thought of going bankrupt as a result of incompetence is a strong incentive to be careful.

    • Pascal's bookie 6.1

      BP’s been bankrupted has it?

      The execs have had their last few years bonus’s clawed back have they?

      We got the legislative shit in place to ensure they would be bankrupted?

  7. RedLogix 7

    Yes that’s sort of true ts, but hypervigilance costs money… lots of it. And that changes the economics of deep sea drilling substantially. Think also insurance premimums or in the case of self-insuring as most big companies do, the change in risk profile the market prices into the business.

    And of course you’ve tangentially hit on the critical consequence of Mocando; that politically no-one can afford for another one to happen.

  8. Jenny 8


    I suspect that the least risky option is to leave the oil in the ground

    I agree, Yet in comments by Labour Party supporters on this site and even in a post by MartyG (though he admitted that Labour wouldn’t do it themselves) urged the Greens to oppose the S&F bill even though it gives local tangata whenua, (iwi), the power to give the order, literally, “to leave the oil in the ground.”

    In another post on the same issue Marty went on tosay that Maori will pervert the power of a veto over exploitation of the marine environment into a money making racket.


    The veto power and mineral rights will be used to extract rents from businesses.

    What do you think?

    • lprent 8.1

      I don’t trust iwi organizations all that much either. They have come a long way from the early debacles in terms of the iwi management (some of the earlier decisions that some made about investments were rather astonishing). Fewer of them have failed (effectively gone bankrupt) than I was predicting in the early 80’s whilst supporting the initial tentative Waitangi tribunal process. But I still don’t trust their decision making processes any more than I do for other corporations. They operate in the interests of their stakeholders, the same as every other corporate.

      I’m afraid that I support having the state control of assets and processes that support us all. Surely you’ve seen some of my comments on the sensitivity of coastal processes? Look them up. I did an earth sciences degree and I’m acutely aware of how easy it is to cause large and widespread damage from ill-considered decisions. I haven’t noticed that Maori organizations were any less susceptible to making crappy decisions myself. If the state controls it, then at least the perpetrators of abuses of the environment were directly voted by us and are accountable to us.

      But that is me. You’d have to ask each Labour supporter (and I’m not sure that Marty is one) what their position is. It is not a doctrinaire party and tolerates a very wide range of opinions. Mine is well to the ‘right’ of the party norms on many things, well to the ‘left’ on others, and well to the ‘green’ on others.

      BTW: If you look closely at my post, I wasn’t opposing extracting oil and gas from offshore. I was opposing extracting it unsafely – which is what I think that Brownlee and NACT are heading towards.

  9. Jenny 9

    US government gets rolled by the oil companies over deep sea oil drilling moratorium.

    Well at least they don’t have to any native title to overcome, as they have in Canada and possibly soon New Zealand.

    Well maybe not if MartyG can convince the Greens to vote against it.

    Good luck with that buddy.

    US offshore drilling ban gets overturned

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