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 â€” the blind shear ram â€” 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 â€” there were only 62 failures out of nearly 90,000 tests conducted over several years â€” 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.