07 Aug

Re-thinking our Environmental Procedures

MANAGING SAFETY

Re-thinking our Environmental Procedures

(Lessons from the Macondo Blowout)

Josiah Diaso College

 

 

The Deepwater Horizon disaster popularly called the Macondo blowout will soon be 8 years on. It passes as one of the most significant environmental disasters in recent history. As the environment and indeed the family of those that passed gradually recovers from the disaster, the lessons that it has taught us must not be lost on us and fade as some distant memory as time pass by. We must be reminded that the potential for similar if not more catastrophic failures of complex systems in the very challenging environment of modern societies and workplaces still exists. I have on this edition of our bulletin decided to stretch our appreciation of the disaster beyond just what happened in the Gulf of Mexico, but to make us look around our environment to see that we are not recreating situations that may result in our own peculiar “Macondo Blowouts”. I have drawn excerpts from the article of Kurt Cobb (Freelance Energy and Environmental writer) on OilPrice.com to pass on a succinct message of latent failures that may already exist in our environmental systems. The intention of this article is never to pass the bulk and do pre-emptive blaming on what we have as controls for our processes, but it is intended to re-awaken us and force us to question every concerns and uncertainties and actually resolve dilemmas until we are absolutely certain that we are all moving towards a secured future. The term “Chronic Unease” is one I have come to associate with what the HSE team at SPDC has as their propelling force towards ascertaining that eyes are kept on the ball as we pursue our safety agenda. Such unease should be adopted by all, and more so be directed towards concern for what we have as our shared home “Spaceship Earth”

Kurt Cobb captures the lessons the Deepwater Horizon disaster should teach as he succinctly draws us to other aspects of societies with potential “Macondo Blowouts”. The excerpts from his article “The Larger Problems behind the Deepwater Horizon Disaster” captured below will enlighten us. He zeroes in on climate change and the use of fossil fuels as he reiterates the lesson of the biggest Oil spill in U.S. History.

He shares thoughts on the need to get back to the place where genuine concern for our environment and the earth is at the bottom of every environmental decision.

“While watching the recently released film "Deepwater Horizon" about the catastrophic well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history, I remembered the term "fail-dangerous," a term I first encountered in correspondence with a risk consultant for the oil and gas industry.

We've all heard the term "fail-safe" before. Fail-safe systems are designed to shut down benignly in case of failure. Fail-dangerous systems include airliners which don't merely halt in place benignly when their engines fail, but crash on the ground in a ball of fire.

For fail-dangerous systems, we believe that failure is either unlikely or that the redundancy that we've built into the system will be sufficient to avert failure or at least minimize damage. Hence, the large amount of money spent on airline safety. This all seems very rational.

But in a highly complex technical society made up of highly complex subsystems such as the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, we should not be so sanguine about our ability to judge risk. On the day the offshore rig blew up, executives from both oil giant BP and Transocean (which owned and operated the rig on behalf of BP) were aboard to celebrate seven years without a lost time incident, an exemplary record. They assumed that this record was the product of vigilance rather than luck.

And, contrary to what the film portrays, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was years in the making as BP and Transocean created a culture that normalized behaviors and decision-making which brought about not an unavoidable tragedy, but rather what is now termed a "normal accident"--a product of normal decisions by people who were following accepted procedures and routines.

Today, we live in a society full of "normal accidents" waiting to happen that will be far more catastrophic than the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. One of those "accidents" is already in progress, and it's called climate change.

People in societies around the globe are doing what they are supposed to be doing, what they routinely do, to stay alive, produce and enjoy what they produce. They do not think of themselves as doing something which is bringing about the biggest "accident" of our time, climate change. No one set out to change the climate. And yet, this is the result of our normalized behavior.

Climate change still appears to many to be building slowly. This summer was hotter than last summer and the one before that. But we've coped. We stay inside in air-conditioning on especially hot days--ironically so, as the fossil fuels making the electricity for the air-conditioner are adding to the warming itself.

It is as if we are all on the Deepwater Horizon just doing our jobs. We notice there are a few things wrong. But, we've dealt with them before, and we can deal with them again. The failures and the breakdowns are accepted as just part of how we do business. And we've managed to avoid anything truly bad up to now. So, we conclude, we must be doing things safely.

Part of the normalization of our response to climate change is the spread of renewable power sources. I have long supported the rapid deployment of renewable power, suggesting that we need the equivalent of a warlike footing to deploy enough to bring about serious declines in fossil fuel use. And, while renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds, it is not growing nearly fast enough to meet the challenges of climate change.

And yet, society at large has relaxed into the idea--promoted by the industry--that renewable energy is well on its way to creating a renewable energy society despite the fact that more than 80 percent of our energy still comes from fossil fuels. We have normalized this response as adequate in the public mind. There remains no generalized alarm about climate change.

Certainly, there are scientists, activists and others who are genuinely alarmed and believe we are not moving nearly fast enough. But this alarm has not translated into aggressive policy responses.

The argument that things have worked just fine in the past so there is no reason to believe they won't work out in the future is a well-worn one. And, it seems to be valid because so many people say it is.

But there is a reason that financial prospectuses say that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Likewise, no bad accidents in the past are not a guarantee of no bad accidents in the future. It is in the structure of how we behave that the risks build. The tipping point finally reveals that we have been doing risky things all along.”

Nothing more needs to be said after going through the thoughts of Kurt Cobb on the Climate Change debacle that will sure rock the very core of our existence if we do not rethink our actions. The recent black soot occurrence in and around Portharcourt Nigeria is telltale of the need to aggressively rethink our environmental procedures and chart a deliberate course towards a more habitable environment that will make providence for the present without compromising the ability of the future to provide for themselves.

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