Oil Spill Response Exercises Exposed Serious Vulnerabilities


Though the bureau presents the report’s conclusions as lessons learned from the recent exercises, many of them could have been learned years ago. They contain echoes of post-mortems on the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

For example, according to a national commission that investigated Deepwater Horizon, oil company BP’s “Oil Spill Response Plan” for the ill-fated Macondo well turned out to have been largely a cut-and-paste job. The oil company’s contingency plan described wildlife foreign to the Gulf of Mexico, such as sea lions, sea otters, and walruses. In addition, according to the online magazine Grist, BP’s plan offered a Japanese home shopping site as the link to one of its “primary equipment providers for BP in the Gulf of Mexico Region [for] rapid deployment of spill response resources on a 24 hour, 7 days a week basis.”

After the Deepwater Horizon—a rig owned by Transocean and on assignment for BP—exploded, there was confusion as to who was responsible for what.

“There was confusion about whether Transocean, the Coast Guard, the salvage company, or anyone at all was directing the firefighting operations,” the national investigative commission reported.

Describing three earlier offshore accidents dating back to 1980, the commission said contributing factors included inadequate worker training and evacuation procedures. “Poor communication and confusion about lines of authority amplified the death toll in at least two of the accidents,” the commission added.

The safety bureau’s new “lessons learned” report is part of a larger pattern.

Under the Trump administration, the bureau has loosened safety standards adopted in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The Wall Street Journal reported that, in 2018, while the bureau was working on that deregulatory initiative, BSEE Director Scott Angelle instructed an employee to delete wording from memos that showed some of the changes contemplated by the bureau and sought by industry went against recommendations of career engineers at the bureau.

Angelle addressed the issue at a March 2020 congressional hearing.

“I have no recollection of instructing anybody to remove a recommendation,” he testified. “I do have a recollection of saying that the recommendation was not ripe because the team had received an assignment and they had not yet fulfilled that assignment.”

At the hearing, Representative Mike Levin (D-CA) gave a different interpretation.

“The only justification I can see is that your policy” to reduce testing of blowout preventers “is to do what the fossil fuel industry wanted you to do, and … you also didn’t want the American people to know that you needed to overrule your own experts to make that happen because that would look really bad,” Levin said.

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