REMAINING VIGILANT: Macondo legacy and COVID-19 reinforce diverse threats to safety

Article published in The Regulator | Issue 2: 2020

Ten years on from the Macondo disaster, which resulted in significant global reforms to improve standards across the offshore oil and gas industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the diverse nature of threats to safe operations, serving as a reminder to remain vigilant and responsive to change.

The 2010 BP Macondo blowout claimed 11 lives and spilt an estimated five million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster was a catalyst for stricter regulations globally and the formation of bodies like NOPSEMA, which is mandated to protect the offshore workforce and ensure responsible environmental management.

Major accident events leave a devastating legacy, with anniversaries serving as harsh reminders of the risks associated with working in high-hazard industries, such as offshore oil and gas.

NOPSEMA CEO Stuart Smith affirms that the Macondo disaster delivered a multitude of lessons for the industry. But he says that these lessons are revisited and considered perennially, to promote a culture of vigilance and responsiveness to changes and telltale indicators of bigger problems.

“From the regulator’s perspective, the Macondo incident brought into stark reality the importance of focusing on maintaining criticial controls to prevent major accident events. Even when other indicators might suggest that things are going well, other information may tell a very different story. In the case of Macondo, I understand the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was receiving an award at the time for the number of days without accidents on the scale of slips and trips. Clearly they were doing some things well but at the same time, those sorts of indicators don’t provide warning of the risk of a major accident event. This attests that regulators and industry can lose sight of those bigger risks if other indicators are pointing to positive outcomes. I think Macondo is a particularly good example of that, reminding us to stay focused on the big risks that really threaten the lives of workers and the environment,” Mr Smith said.

In light of the need to remain alert and aware of various, evolving risks and how they affect the overall risk picture, NOPSEMA is considering broadening its scope of investigations to take into consideration a company’s culture and how it balances performance expectations against safety priorities.

“As a regulator, there is opportunity for us to provide additional value and perspective to the industry through other approaches such as management inspections. These inspections could focus on leadership and oversight of an organisation’s management of risks and assess whether senior management have adequate visibility of the working environment and suitable reporting arrangements from an operational site to the Executive. Information from these inspections could add significant value to the understanding of a company’s leadership and their systems for providing and receiving information from the bottom up and vice versa.”

Just as the Macondo crisis influenced change on a global scale, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced NOPSEMA as well as the offshore oil and gas sector to adapt and evolve.

Like many industries, the offshore energy sector has responded to COVID-19 by applying new approaches to ensure critical business continuity and the health of its people under unprecedented and challenging circumstances.

NOPSEMA has also responded to the threat by drawing on latest techniques and the collective efforts of industry and its workforce to diversify the way it does compliance monitoring.

Mr Smith says the pandemic has resulted in a greater willingness for stakeholders, including industry, government, workplace representatives and regulatory bodies in Australia and overseas, to share information to deal with problems collectively, leading to faster and improved results.

“The cooperation we have had from all groups has been excellent. There’s been a greater level of collaboration than traditionally occurs across the industry and the experience we’ve had with COVID-19 in that regard has been of benefit to everyone,” Mr Smith said.

“For example, there has been greater collaboration and interaction between industry players, as in operators of offshore facilities, the Health and Safety Representatives (HSR), and the union movement, so workplace concerns are being picked up earlier and addressed earlier. Further, interaction between the operators and regulators has been occurring more frequently, and that’s enabled issues to be dealt with quickly and flexibly.”

In addition to increased interaction and stronger collaboration, NOPSEMA’s Head of Safety and Integrity, Derrick O’Keeffe believes the lessons learned from disasters like Macondo and pandemics like COVID-19 can be used to bolster industry’s capabilities to deal with threats, leading to better practices and safer outcomes.

“The 1988 Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea and the 2010 Macondo both contributed to radical change in safety world-wide with significant improvements in risks assessment and their management. So while no one saw COVID-19 coming and the risks this meant to the workforce, the mechanisms were already in place for dealing with infectious diseases such as Chickenpox, Whooping Cough and Measles. This meant that there were processes for operators of offshore facilities to quickly build upon and ensure the protection of their workforce,” Mr O’Keeffe said.

“COVID-19 has reminded regulators and industry to expect the unexpected.  We all have to be alert to changes in risk, and the emergence of new risks. This thinking will allow us to quickly adapt new processes to the existing, established systems that have been created to date.”

 It’s anticipated that in due course, COVID-19 will contribute to a safer and more environmentally responsible offshore oil and gas sector.

“The lessons from COVID-19 will add to the existing base of industry knowledge and systems. There’s nothing dramatically new about an infectious disease being a risk. It’s the specific risks associated with COVID-19 that emerged and the required responses needed to deal with those specific risks that are valuable to our knowledge base. Each step in the learning process provides a contribution to improve industry. Each step provides a continual reminder that the threats are there even if we can’t see them – we all must be ready for them,” Mr O’Keeffe said.

The COVID-19 experience is also expected to result in cultural changes across the offshore industry.

“Instead of being constrained by the way things have always been done, it’s evident that members of the offshore oil and gas sector are willing to consider different approaches to solving problems. That’s been a useful cultural change and it’s a change that I, and others across industry, would like to see continue,” Mr Smith said.

Internationally, there is recognition that the pandemic has influenced global practices in positive ways.

“At NOPSEMA, we have really valued the input we have received from other members from the International Regulators’ Forum (IRF). We have certainly shared our experiences with other jurisdictions within the IRF and they have certainly been happy to share their experiences and that’s given us the opportunity to test whether or not what we’re doing is amongst leading practice or not.

“Whether there are any lessons in other jurisdictions, we have sought to apply them in Australia and that’s particularly important for the oil and gas industry and for operators internationally. They want to know that whatever systems are being put in place in Australia are among the leading practices globally. This creates the opportunity to apply the best practices elsewhere, reducing risks for the workforce.

“The IRF has been a mechanism for us to coordinate responses even though individual jurisdictions are responsible for their own jurisdiction. We’ve been able to share experience and that’s led to a more consistent approach internationally and I think a better approach internationally.”