Deepwater horizon: A lesson for public-private partnerships in planning and exercising for catastrophe
Tuesday, May 18 update:
Disaster plans lacking at deep rigs (Wall Street Journal)
BP response plan shows lack of readiness (USA Today)
BP, deepwaterdrillers unprepared for oil leaks, Lieberman says (Bloomberg Businessweek)
Transocean, the word’s largest deepwater drilling company, owns the Deepwater Horizon platform now scattered across the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Transocean was operating Deepwater Horizon under contract with a consortium of energy companies that holds the minerals lease on Mississippi Canyon block 252 (MC252).
British Petroleum, one of the world’s largest energy companies, is the majority owner (65 percent) of the MC252 lease and the oil well now spewing tens-of-thousands of gallons of oil into the Gulf. The lease was awarded by the Minerals Management Service of the US Department of Interior.
As a condition of being awarded the MC252 lease, British Petroleum and its consortium partners undertook several commitments. Title 30, part 250, section 107 of the Code of Federal Regulations specifies the following for all MMS leaseholders:
a) You must protect health, safety, property, and the environment by:
(1) Performing all operations in a safe and workmanlike manner; and
(2) Maintaining all equipment and work areas in a safe condition.
(b) You must immediately control, remove, or otherwise correct any hazardous oil and gas accumulation or other health, safety, or fire hazard.
(c) You must use the best available and safest technology (BAST) whenever practical on all exploration, development, and production operations. In general, we consider your compliance with MMS regulations to be the use of BAST.
(d) The Director may require additional measures to ensure the use of BAST:
(1) To avoid the failure of equipment that would have a significant effect on safety, health, or the environment;
(2) If it is economically feasible; and
(3) If the benefits outweigh the costs.
Catastrophic potential is often discounted by cost-benefit analysis. From various news reports (many of which originated with a Huffington Post piece) it appears this may be the case with the MC252 lease.
The private sector is not alone in discounting catastrophic potential. Talk to your city, county, or State emergency managers regarding catastrophic preparedness. You might time the increasing frequency of extended “uhhhs,” “umms,” and other signals of uncertainty (otherwise known as “thinking”). Or you might ask yourself a similar set of questions and evaluate your own preparedness for an unlikely but high consequence event.
Continuing with lease commitments: 30 CFR part 250, Section 250 addresses what preparations the MC252 leasee must undertake for an oil spill:
The following information regarding potential spills of oil (see definition under 30 CFR 254.6) and hazardous substances (see definition under 40 CFR part 116), as applicable, must accompany your DPP or DOCD:
(a) Oil spill response planning. The material required under paragraph (a)(1) or (a)(2) of this section:
(1) An Oil Spill Response Plan (OSRP) for the facilities you will use to conduct your proposed development and production activities prepared according to the requirements of 30 CFR part 254, subpart B; or
(2) Reference to your approved regional OSRP (see 30 CFR 254.3) to include:
(i) A discussion of your regional OSRP;
(ii) The location of your primary oil spill equipment base and staging area;
(iii) The name(s) of your oil spill removal organization(s) for both equipment and personnel;
(iv) The calculated volume of your worst case discharge scenario (see 30 CFR 254.26(a)), and a comparison of the appropriate worst case discharge scenario in your approved regional OSRP with the worst case discharge scenario that could result from your proposed development and production activities; and
(v) A description of the worst case oil spill scenario that could result from your proposed development and production activities (see 30 CFR 254.26(b), (c), (d), and (e)).
(b) Modeling report. If you model a potential oil or hazardous substance spill in developing your DPP or DOCD, a modeling report or the modeling results, or a reference to such report or results if you have already submitted it to the Regional Supervisor.
The approved BP regional Oil Spill Response Plan (OSRP) (19.8 megabyte download) is mostly a specialized Incident Command System (ICS) model with an inventory of response equipment, call lists, and sample information forms. There is no evidence of any thinking per se complicating the plan. Response is conceived primarily as a sequence of competent tactics responding to a mostly predictable event.
This is typical of most “emergency plans.” To plan once meant to develop a scheme of action anticipating strategic inflections. Too often we now reduce a plan to something similar to a complicated wiring diagram. This is one reason why so many plans remain comfortably ensconced on the planer’s or regulator’s shelf or hard drive.
Federal regulations — specifically 30 CFR, part 250, section 300 — address several aspects of pollution mitigation in offshore drilling. Sections 400, 500, and 600 specify several safety measures that must be in place. There is particular attention to technical aspects of blow-out prevention. Section 1500 gives attention to Well Control and Production Safety Training. The Minerals Management Service also administers a significant program focused on prevention, mitigation, and preparedness for oil spills (see MMS website).
What I cannot find in any of these regulations or plans or instructions is significant attention to catastrophic possibility. This is not surprising. It is typical. I do not view this inattention as proof of regulatory or corporate malfeasance. It is, though, a mistake. It is a mistake we now have an opportunity to recognize and plenty of motivation to correct.
No matter how strong the prevention effort nor how unlikely the catastrophe, there should be regularly updated plans for mitigating and responding to several — no-kidding — worst case scenarios. To have any hope of effectiveness the plans must be regularly exercised. Both public and private players must be involved in the exercises, assessments, and plan revisions. This prescription is important far beyond offshore drilling and as close as your own neighborhood.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A dime of preparedness is worth a hundred bucks of response. An hour exercising is worth more than ten hours filling in planning templates. A thoughtful plan, a meaningful exercise, a realistic evaluation, and a rigorous updating of both plans and operations is worth… well, it’s one of the rarest of finds.
For further consideration:
Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter R. Bernstein
Resources and outcomes of the May 12 hearing of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
British Petroleum’s Gulf of Mexico Response website
Southeast Louisiana Area Contingency Plan (PDF: large download)
MMS Notice to Leasees regarding Regional and Sub-regional Oil Spill Response Plans
(On Monday, May 17 beginning at 2:30 the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will conduct a hearing entitled: Gulf Coast Catastrophe: Assessing the Nation’s Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Secretary Napolitano and others are scheduled to testify.)