It’s Obvious – Offshore Drilling Practices Shockingly Behind Aviation Protocols

Listening to BP and Transocean executives testify about the Deepwater Horizon disaster is very much like hearing airline executives following an air crash testifying to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The selective memory, or non-memory, is breathtaking in its scope – until attentive NTSB members ask pertinent questions.

And it’s not credible. This writer remembers details of infantry combat in Vietnam 40 years ago as vividly as if the events happened yesterday, right down to the dirt in hastily pulled-on combat boots.

Similarly, anyone who has survived an air crash recalls details – the sights, smells, sounds that come from the “hypervigilance” associated with impending disaster.

Yet the vice presidents and other executives both ashore and on the Deepwater Horizon rig were full of “I don’t recall” and “I don’t know” and “I can’t comment” and “I’m not specifically aware” and other suchlike phrases reflecting muddled and completely absent memory. The occasion of this memory vacuum was the probe last week by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) into the 20 April explosion of the rig, killing 11 of the 126 people aboard and leading to the largest oil spill ever in the Gulf of Mexico.

The USCG/BOEM hearings are not sounding credible. Said one commentator: "Our government is covering for BP in a blatant disregard for the people of this country they profess to be protecting."

The USCG/BOEM hearings are not sounding credible. Said one commentator: "Our government is covering for BP in a blatant disregard for the people of this country they profess to be protecting."

The Coast Guard/BOEM hearing was carried on C-SPAN radio; anybody familiar with NTSB investigations into air crashes would have been outraged at the quality of questions and the non-responsiveness of the answers. Truly, the NTSB serves as a model for conducting such inquiries.

BP’s executives were asked about the safety culture among deepwater drilling crews. They were not asked to produce that statement affirming commitment to safety. The executives replied that the safety culture differs for deepwater and shallow water crews. They did not outline specific difference, nor were they asked to. The answers were more along the lines of different procedures, which is not the same as the safety culture. The executives declared that any person who observes a safety violation can stop the operations; they were not able to cite a single instance where this was done.

It was also evident that BOEM’s predecessor agency, the Bureau of Minerals Management (BMM), excised nil oversight of BP’s safety culture, much less oversight of its drilling operations. If the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) exercises infrequent oversight of airline and repair station operations – once a year or less – the agency nevertheless is a paragon of action compared to BMM/BOEM. Unfortunately, the comparison was not made by the inquisitors, because they obviously did not know what the FAA declares in policy documents and practices about a robust safety culture.

In the FAA, there is at least lip service paid to the need for a just safety culture at both the national and the regional airlines. In BP, where deepwater and shallow water operations are analogous to national and regional airline operations, there is not even a recognition of the need for a common safety culture.

Nor is there a single document, as in the airlines, directing operations. Recall that every airplane contains an aircraft operations manual (AOM), spelling out for aircrews exactly what procedures are to be followed. A common manual applies to maintenance, as well.

At the hearing, BP executives testified that at least four different manuals were on the Deepwater Horizon spelling out procedures for drilling operations. The executives were not familiar with the manuals, or the differences between them, or the circumstances under which they must be referred before undertaking an operational evolution.

It is as if the captain and first officer on an airliner had four separate AOMs, with an unspecified number of differences between them and no guidance as to which should predominate.

 The blow out preventer (BOP) was the last line of defense against catastrophe, yet many of its critical components were either inoperative or hooked up incorrectly. Unlike in the NTSB and the FAA, there was no discussion of the danger attendant to a “single point failure.” In the airlines, safety is built on the ethic of redundancy – two, three or even four back ups for functions that simply must perform (e.g., hydraulic and electrically powered engine and flight controls).

For relevance to aviation, consider this reaction to the Coast Guard/BOEM hearing:

“For the people on this saga reconfiguring and plumbing hydraulics on deep water BOPs, hopefully please keep them away from Boeing or Airbus.”

Nor was there any discussion of documenting which components of the BOP were inoperative. One recalls the Master Minimum Equipment List (MMEL), which must be approved by the FAA for each airline. The MMEL lists which items of airplane equipment can be inoperative awaiting repair (usually a 10-day window) – for example, one can fly with a weather radar inoperative, so long as the back up fulfills the function.

There is apparently nothing like the MMEL in drilling operations, so any number of systems can be inoperative and there is nothing to prevent the operation from proceeding. In the airline industry, the MMEL is the FAA’s way of guaranteeing that a minimum level of safety prevails.

Nor is there anything like the flight data recorder (FDR) in offshore drilling operations. Recall that the FDR captures key engine, flight and system parameters and records them in a crash-hardened box for retrieval by investigators should the airplane crash. The data recorded by the black boxes have been instrumental in unraveling the cause of numerous crashes. There is a maritime equivalent of the FDR – the voyage data recorders – but such an instrument was not aboard the Deepwater Horizon. The Deepwater Horizon is treated like a vessel when the rig is underway, but not when it’s stationary conducting drilling operations (when a different chain of command prevails, just to add to the confusion – imagine two captains for an airliner, one for taxiing and another for flying).

Moreover, many airlines now operate flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) programs, in which each flight is recorded, and later downloaded to identify and correct any “exceedances” (such as deploying flaps at too great a speed). FOQA programs have been instrumental in improving safety and crew conformance with set procedures.

Again, there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent in the oil industry – despite the fact that drilling and refining operations are dangerous, with the potential to wreak multiple air crashes worth of damage.

What comes through the Coast Guard/BOEM hearings is that the offshore oil industry has miles to go before it’s got minimum standards equivalent to those in the airline industry. Worse, it is also evident that the Coast Guard/BOEM questioners are not aware of how far behind they are in requiring rudimentary safety standards and providing industry oversight equivalent to that afforded by NTSB investigations. The questions asked at the Coast Guard/BOEM hearings were vague and open-ended; the responses were similarly vacuous.

One observer characterized the hearings thusly:

“Some [BP executives] have simply refused to answer questions or deflected accountability. And the best our … inquirers can do is huff and puff and act indignant.”

The Coast Guard/BOEM hearings just don’t compare to NTSB inquiries, where acting indignant is a sure way to get in big trouble. Any number of former NTSB chairmen and board members can provide the Coast Guard/BOEM advice on how to conduct independent probes that get to root causes while educating the public.

The NTSB has earned a reputation for thoroughness, in part because Chairman Hersman herself digs deep.

The NTSB has earned a reputation for thoroughness, in part because Chairman Hersman herself digs deep.

It is probably too late for the Deepwater Horizon investigation, but unless the NTSB instructs the Coast Guard/BOEM in how airline safety practices and accident investigations are conducted, the offshore oil industry will likely engage in token measures that lag shockingly behind the norm in aviation.