Can Process Control Prevent Oil Well Blowouts?

Oil Drilling Accident in the Gulf of Mexico: What caused it? Could We Have Prevented the Blowout with Properly Designed Process Control Systems?

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We must realize that standards and regulations alone can not instill a culture of safety. To instill and to develop such a culture, corporations should stop judging and rewarding their engineers on the basis of cutting corners and reducing costs and should start evaluating their performance on the basis of quality, efficiency and safety. But corporations will not do that unless it is in their interest to do so.

Therefore, the safety record of corporations should be widely distributed, allowing the average citizen to take that into account when making a purchasing decision. Similarly, not only the corporations should be penalized for their safety offenses, but also their officers as individuals.

In case of the BP accident, the BOP's reliability and availability numbers did not meet even minimum risk level standards! This could occur only because there were neither regulations nor enforcement and because economics was considered to be more important than safety or preparedness for handling accidents. Future regulations must include accident mitigation response including the use of oil skimmers, booms, controlled burning, health and welfare monitoring of workers, human resource pools, ecology monitoring, coast line protection, etc. In the future, such regulations must also state that all foreign companies violating the standards will be fined and banished from U.S. waters.

It is also important to realize that criminal penalties and economic liabilities alone will not instill a culture of safety; positive incentives are also needed! In the case of drilling for oil, for example, the corporations with good safety records should be rewarded by paying less in royalties for their off-shore leases and should receive their permits faster than the ones with bad safety records. These steps would reduce the presently prevailing conflict between safety on the one hand and cost and schedule on the other.

The Moral

What should we learn from this accident? One of the important lesson is that accidents can be very expensive, and the protection against them should override any other consideration. A consequence of this recognition is that the role of process control engineers should be increased. This is because while the specialists of mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical or computer engineering are all doing a good job within their fields, none of them are qualified to look at the overall process. Only process control engineers have the overall understanding to design systems that will guarantee total safety, but we are far from this being universally understood.

(When I was teaching process control at Yale University, I did that within the chemical engineering department. My books on process control are being published within the electrical engineering department. This is not because these institutions have anything against our profession! It is because they don't even know that it exists!)

Full automation is required not only because human judgment is a function of the qualification of the person making the decisions, but also because that judgment can be influenced by cost and schedule considerations or can be too slow to arrest a quickly evolving unsafe condition.

Another lesson we should learn is the need for process-specific regulations so that drilling for oil could not take place without automatic safety equipment, backup and redundancy. This is essential because if each platform is individually designed and is operated by cost and schedule-oriented "objective management," these accidents will continue to occur. On the other hand, if the world's best talent, - and not the views of the lobbyists and politicians in Washington, where there are nearly 500 oil industry lobbyists -  is used to come up with an international reference standard, safety will be improved. Finally and most important, society as a whole must accept that safety costs money, and that cost has to be paid for by the user through increasing the cost of gasoline.

Naturally, we should also realize that this cost of "scraping the bottom of the barrel" for traditional energy sources could be better spent by investing it in the conversion to free, safe and inexhaustible energy sources (such as solar hydrogen). This is true not only because sooner or later this conversion has to be done anyway, but also because (while offshore drilling today provides thousands of jobs) the conversion will create millions, and if renewable energy plants are moved into the areas devastated by oil spills, the people there will have jobs and our grandchildren will have no reason to ask: "Why did you not act in time?"

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