Our view: Gulf spill report

Takeaway lessons: Prevention is everything; cut no corners

September 14, 2011 

The most exhaustive report to date about the Deepwater Horizon explosion lays most of the blame on decisions and practices by BP. The report also holds other companies responsible. But the federal investigation by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement puts BP front and center.

Two criticisms are particularly telling, both for conclusions about this disaster and warnings to prevent others.

One is that company managers made some decisions "blindly," skipping safety routines that might have alerted them and others to potential dangers.

The second is the report's conclusion that BP jeopardized safety to cut costs. Investigators noted that performance evaluations noted cost savings by 13 workers on the Macondo well.

Safety procedures can be time-consuming and expensive. They cut into the bottom line.

Had they been followed on the Deepwater Horizon in work on the Macondo well, 11 oil rig workers likely would still be alive. Two hundred million gallons of crude oil likely would not have spilled into gulf waters.

Shell might already be exploring in Alaska's Arctic waters.

For Alaskans, that's where these lessons of the Deepwater Horizon may soon apply. Shell is likely to win permits to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and this is encouraging for the state's continued prosperity. Company executives have promised a methodical, careful process of exploration. If that care means exploration slows a little, so be it.

It's the people of Shell who will in the end determine how well the company goes about its business. That doesn't take enforcement agencies off the hook. They need to hold Shell to its obligations. But they won't be looking over their shoulders every minute of every mile on the way.

The Gulf spill shows that no matter what systems you have, you need company managers and workers who are dead serious about they call "process safety." Systems don't do the work or make the decisions. People do. So doing it right has to trump doing if fast.

Redundancies? Yes. Double, triple check? Yes.

Shortcuts? No.

Once oil spills, there's no victory to be had. Just damage control. And while Arctic circumstances aren't the same as in the Gulf of Mexico -- shallower water, lower well pressures -- the Arctic presents its own formidable challenges. That's why prevention is everything.

The devil and our guardian angels are both in the details of that prevention.

BOTTOM LINE: Latest report strengthens lessons of Gulf spill for Arctic -- prevention is everything, and shortcuts won't get you there.

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