A specific – not systemic – failure

The release yesterday of findings by the presidential commission on the BP-Deepwater Horizon accident has helped give us a fuller picture of what happened in the tragic Gulf of Mexico blowout, explosion and oil spill.

The report concluded that the disaster was avoidable and resulted from a specific series of management failures on the part of the companies involved.

Investigations such as this are crucial to informing long-term policy and operational responses, some of which are already in place through changes to industry standards and federal safety regulations for well design, casing and cementing operations.

But we can’t agree with the commission’s conclusion that the accident reflected “systemic failures” by the industry and regulators to deal with the risks of deep-water oil exploration.

The evidence just simply isn’t there.

Based on the industry’s extensive experience, we know that tragic incidents like the one we witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico should not occur – and have not occurred in more than 14,000 deep-water wells drilled worldwide.

Wells need to be properly designed for the range of risk anticipated. Established procedures must be followed. Layers of redundancy need to be built into the process. Equipment must be properly inspected and maintained; operators must be trained; tests and drills conducted; and the focus must be on safe operations and sound risk management.

We agree that industry has a role to play in ensuring that safety and environmental standards are maintained and strengthened. Industry has responded with tougher standards, and ExxonMobil is leading the development of a $1 billion emergency containment system for the Gulf of Mexico.

We’ve always said that safety isn’t proprietary. And that’s why we’ve shared the principles of our Operations Integrity Management System, or OIMS, which was established in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989, and which I’ve written about on this blog before.

As our chairman and CEO, Rex Tillerson, said in his testimony to the commission in November: “In an industry such as ours — which operates 24 hours a day, around the world — the need to manage risk never ends. Even the best safety framework should be viewed as a work in progress. Developing a culture of safety therefore is not an event, but a journey.”

The BP-Deepwater Horizon incident is a sober reminder of why safety practices and culture must remain paramount. But it’s not a reflection of systemic failure.


1 Comment

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  1. Will Greinfeld says:

    As a member of a risk-sensitive industry, I appreciate the your hesitancy to recognize the systematic components of this disaster. To suggest this was just an isolated incident, however, scares me (as a member of the public) more than if you would just embrace the real problems this exposed. When my industry had a major problem in 1979, we faced the facts and cleaned up our act. I hope you will too.

    The depth of safety defenses in a complex operation such as this should mean that if there is a failure of this magnitude, then it means that there was a de facto systemic problem.

    If the problem was isolated & not systemic, then that means that your technology is not mature enough to do what you are doing (although I guess that is a systemic problem of its own!).

    Based on what I have discerned, the technology is generally adequate, but the regulatory bodies, internal oversight and safety cultures may not be.

    In the next couple of years, your industry gets to decide if they are going to work towards the solution or be like the coal mining industry (sue the regulator over and over again to preclude regulatory intervention). I encourage you to choose the former. It’s painful sometimes, but the results are much better.

  2. Will Greinfeld says:

    As a member of a risk-sensitive industry, I appreciate the your hesitancy to recognize the systematic components of this disaster. To suggest this was just an isolated incident, however, scares me (as a member of the public) more than if you would just embrace the real problems this exposed. When my industry had a major problem in 1979, we faced the facts and cleaned up our act. I hope you will too.

    The depth of safety defenses in a complex operation such as this should mean that if there is a failure of this magnitude, then it means that there was a de facto systemic problem.

    If the problem was isolated & not systemic, then that means that your technology is not mature enough to do what you are doing (although I guess that is a systemic problem of its own!).

    Based on what I have discerned, the technology is generally adequate, but the regulatory bodies, internal oversight and safety cultures may not be.

    In the next couple of years, your industry gets to decide if they are going to work towards the solution or be like the coal mining industry (sue the regulator over and over again to preclude regulatory intervention). I encourage you to choose the former. It’s painful sometimes, but the results are much better.