Global’s Update – 07/15/10

British Petroleum’s Misadventures Could Happen to Anyone.

In June of 1979 in the Gulf of Mexico, an offshore oil rig called the Ixtoc I operated under contract to the Mexican government suffered a cataclysmic blowout when the rig’s blowout preventer valve, a series of rams designed to sever and seal off the well in an emergency, failed. The well ignited, there was an explosion and the platform collapsed and sank almost 200 feet to the bottom of the ocean. For nine months Sedco, the company who operated the platform, struggled to cap the well as it spewed 30 000 barrels (about 4.77 million litres) of oil into the ocean each day. They tried pumping the well full of mud and water. They tried mixing shrapnel in with the mud. Then, they tried covering it with a metal cap shaped like a hat. In the end, a pair of relief wells eventually allowed the pressure in the well to drop so that the leak could be sealed. By 1980, the Ixtoc I was the worst environmental disaster the US had ever seen.

Does any of this sound familiar?

1979 — The worst oil spill in US history: The Ixtoc I, Gulf of Mexico

We won’t rehash the events of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon spill, partly because well… we just did, and partly because you probably know most of them already. What does bear pointing out is that, in intervening 31 years, operations “Top Kill”, “Junk Shot” and “Top Hat” have shown us no significant improvements in the technologies used to cap offshore oil leaks. In 1979 the cap was cone-shaped and the attempt to place it was called —no kidding— Operation “Sombrero”. Since BP’s response plan provides for the rescue of the Gulf of Mexico’s walruses & sea-lions (of which there have been none for the last 3 million years) this appears to be a plan in desperate need of an update. Of course, these animals are present in other parts of the world where oil spills are a threat, but this plan was specifically for the Gulf of Mexico; submitted as part of BP’s proposal to the US government to drill there. At a hearing on emergency response pertinence, US Congressman Ed Markey castigated oil executives saying, “The only technology you seem to be relying on is a Xerox machine.”

2010 — Meet the new boss: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Issues of culpability aside, what this incident undeniably underlines is the absolute need for organizations to keep their emergency response and business continuity plans relevant and current. When plan reviews are conducted, they require critical thinking and an eye to the direst possible circumstances and outcomes, not the most optimistic. If, for reasons of comfort or expediency, emergency planners are unwilling to confront a worst-case scenario, chances are an incident will come along to envision it for them. One BP manager, when told there was a shortage of cement anchors holding the Deepwater pipeline in place, responded in an e-mail (the italics are mine), “Who cares, it’s done, end of story, We’ll probably be fine.” As it turns out, a great many people care: the residents of the gulf coast, the families of the 11 oil workers killed in the fire, President Obama and the chief executive of British Petroleum care. They care rather a lot. CNN

Always Have a Plan B

Finally, lest you should think business continuity and emergency planners have no sense of humour, we’ll leave you for now with this:

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