December 2015 /// Vol 236 No. 12

Industry leaders outlook 2016

The “Human Factor” threat

In the latter part of 2015, my weekly meetings included a threat assessment for the Gulf of Mexico, a BSEE BAST assessment conference and a Drilling Engineering Committee meeting, focused on “extreme drilling,” which included much discussion of safety issues in extreme environments. In other words, all that week’s events were HSE-focused. That’s unusual, but it may not be going forward.

William J. Pike, World Oil

In the latter part of 2015, my weekly meetings included a threat assessment for the Gulf of Mexico, a BSEE BAST assessment conference and a Drilling Engineering Committee meeting, focused on “extreme drilling,” which included much discussion of safety issues in extreme environments. In other words, all that week’s events were HSE-focused. That’s unusual, but it may not be going forward.

You can boil that week’s discussion down to three topics: offshore vulnerabilities, offshore threats and industry preparedness. On a scale of one to ten, each topic received a six to seven for industry recognition of the problems, but lower scores for actual threat level, save one.

Offshore vulnerabilities. Most people, including those who know, or should know, better, assume that the biggest vulnerability in the Gulf of Mexico, or any other province, is a deepwater, Macondo-type drilling incident. In the conversations that I had in the week under discussion, the Macondo concept, initiated by an attack, was the targeted vulnerability. It took a good deal of knowledgeable discussion to persuade participants that the likelihood of a Macondo-type accident, initiated by an attack on a deepwater drillship, or by natural factors such as weather/currents, was not high, because it would require the open hole to be in a pressured hydrocarbon formation, in an underbalanced state. In addition, it would require the failure of BOP equipment. It’s not impossible but would have to be pulled off by someone with fairly specific knowledge of the drilling program, or initiated by a natural occurrence of great intensity and little warning.

Discussion also considered attacks on deepwater wells, platforms (both deep and shallow), and pipelines and pipeline hubs. The introduction of the subsurface safety valve requirement in the Gulf of Mexico—and most everywhere else—quickly ended the idea of a calamitous attack on subsea wells. Safety valve and shutdown systems on platforms quickly removed them from the discussion, also. In fact, the worst-case scenario that any participant could come up with was one that curtailed a portion of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas supply by strikes against pipelines and pipeline hubs. However, analyses have indicated that the disruption to supply of oil and gas, while a potential annoyance, would have little impact on the national economy, or that of any other countries, which relied partially on oil and gas production.

Offshore threats. The most obvious threat to Gulf of Mexico infrastructure and personnel is a massive storm. The presence of a strong El-Nino in late 2015, and running into 2016, seemed to foretell a worse hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) however, correctly forecast a season with fewer named storms in 2015 than the statistical average.

Storm strength, however, is another matter. The 2014 season featured the fewest named storms in 17 years, but also the strongest landfall in six years, and two back-to-back hurricanes that hit Bermuda. However, strengthening of offshore infrastructure has lessened the danger of major damage. Increased warning time has allowed more timely evacuation of personnel.

The threat of an attack on offshore infrastructure is much less benign. New technologies, especially next-generation, intelligent autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), have the capability of deploying in offshore waters without detection. In addition, payloads for AUVs are increasing. However, their chance of inflicting major damage is not high, due to redundant fail-safe systems.

The least-acknowledged, most poorly understood threat to the Gulf of Mexico, and other offshore infrastructure, is the offshore workforce. Bruce Burch, senior well control engineer at Mercury Well Control, gave a scary, but truthful presentation to the Drilling Engineering Committee meeting. He detailed the scope of potential human failure in the Gulf of Mexico in the present, depressed environment.

According to Burch, the human factor crisis involves two issues. The first is training, which has gotten lax. That applies not just to classroom training but also to follow-up training and on-the-job experience. In the current environment, with personnel worried about job retention and re-employment prospects, full attention is not devoted to tasks, including training.

This is exacerbated, Burch argues, by accepting subjective evidence as fact—that is, we take mistaken observations and definitive, but unproven, statements as facts that we then act upon. This happens, even though these statements may be no more than one colleagues’ repeated assertions or another’s comments resulting from a misunderstood observation. “And if the ‘fact’—although not correct—doesn’t cause a major impact, we assume it’s right until years down the road,” says Burch, when we prove with technology that the “fact” is not a fact, or when the “fact” causes a major issue.

Is industry prepared to deal with these issues? Regarding vulnerabilities and threats, the answer is, mostly, yes. Mechanical safety systems can address the vulnerabilities and mitigate the threats. There should not be another incident like Macondo, as a result of misunderstood vulnerabilities or threats. The same cannot be said of the threat to infrastructure created by a distracted, inadequately trained and overly confident workforce. That’s the case Burch makes, and it’s well made. wo-box_blue.gif

The Authors ///

William J. Pike has 47 years’ experience in the upstream oil and gas industry, and serves as Chairman of the World Oil Editorial Advisory Board.

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