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Five years after Deepwater Horizon, what has the disaster taught us?

Oil development in the Gulf has moved into greater drill depths and riskier reaches of seafloor than those of BP’s Macondo well, the AP’s Cain Burdeau concludes.

Around the Web, there were solid enterprise efforts aimed more or less directly at the question of what’s been learned, a half-decade on, from the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Considerable retrospection has been published in the last few days about the Deepwater Horizon blowout, which occurred five years ago Monday and opened an oil hemorrhage that flowed until Sept. 19.

Little of this coverage earned newsprint or air time locally, and much of what turned up in mainstream U.S. media was chaff anyway, of the typical good news/bad news, he says/she says variety: British Petroleum says the Gulf of Mexico is healthy again — environmentalists say, not so much.

Especially dismal was The Economist’s editorial, published in the Strib on Sunday, which opined that (a) the Gulf environment got off lightly, damage-wise, considering the volume of oil released, although (b) green groups predictably think it’s British Petroleum that’s had the lucky breaks, while (c) the insistence of U.S. courts that BP pay more than it prefers to clean up its mess can only discourage foreign investment in American enterprise.

Speaking as one who generally admires The Economist, and not infrequently mentions its good work in this space, all I can say about this piece is … Really?

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Elsewhere around the Web, however, were solid enterprise efforts aimed more or less directly at the question of what’s been learned, a half-decade on, from the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Let me point you to a few of my favorites:

Drilling in riskier places

Drawing on industry statistics, because the Interior Department wouldn’t cooperate, the AP’s Cain Burdeau concludes that oil development in the Gulf has moved into greater drill depths and riskier reaches of seafloor than those of BP’s doomed Macondo well.

About two dozen ultra-deep wells have won federal approval since lifting of the brief moratorium that followed the Macondo blowout, Burdeau wrote on Monday, and the number of deepwater rigs in the Gulf has risen from 35 back then to 48 last month. Excerpts:

The average ocean depth of all wells started since 2010 has increased to 1,757 feet, 40 percent deeper than the average well drilled in the five years before that. And that’s just the depth of the water.

Drillers are exploring a “golden zone” of oil and natural gas that lies roughly 20,000 feet beneath the seafloor, through a 10,000-foot thick layer of prehistoric salt — far deeper than BP’s Macondo well, which was considered so tricky at the time that a rig worker killed in the blowout once described it to his wife as “the well from hell.”

Temperatures and pressures — the conditions that make drilling so risky — get more intense the deeper you go. And the ancient salt layer brings extra wild cards. Technology now allows engineers to see the huge reservoirs beneath the previously opaque salt, but the layer is still harder to see through than rock. And it’s prone to hiding pockets of oil and gas that raise the potential for a blowout.

BP officials told the AP that the company has improved its safety culture and the metrics prove it. Officials at other oil companies, and at least one federal regulator, essentially agreed.

The AP found 22 incidents since Deepwater Horizon, however, where drillers temporarily lost control of a well in the Gulf – without catastrophic consequences, so far.

Survey says: A disaster

Separately, Burdeau and Seth Borensein dug beneath the predictably duelling assessments of BP spokesfolk and environmental advocates by asking 26 marine scientists for their professional assessment of the spill’s environmental impact. From the findings published Friday:

On average, the researchers graded an 11 percent drop in the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico. The surveyed scientists on average said that before the spill, the Gulf was a 73 on a 0 to 100 scale. Now it’s a 65.

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In the survey, scientists report the biggest drops in rating the current health of oysters, dolphins, sea turtles, marshes, and the seafloor.

“The spill was —  and continues to be —  a disaster,” said Oregon State marine sciences professor Jane Lubchenco, who was the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the spill. “The bottom line is that oil is nasty stuff. Yes, the Gulf is resilient, but it was hit pretty darn hard.”

Nor is all the evidence in hand just yet:

NOAA chief scientist [Richard] Spinrad said the government hopes to finish its five-year assessment on the health of the Gulf by the end of the year, so it is too early to make any real conclusions. Some problems may show up later. It was not until 10 years after 1989’s Exxon Valdez spill that scientists noticed a dramatic crash in the vital herring population.

The human factor

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire, the world watched in real time as engineers attempted to plug the blown-out Macondo well in a series of failed attempts over five months. But if the solution required more technical proficiency than BP and its helpers could readily provide, the blowout itself was mainly the result of human failings.

Writing in the UK’s Guardian on Monday, two risk-management experts assessing post-spill  changes in oil and gas industry practices conclude that the equipment side is still getting too much attention and the operator side too little:

In the five years since the Deepwater Horizon accident, the oil and gas industry has not retreated to safety. Instead, it has expanded its technological horizon in ways that make it harder to foresee the complex interactions between drilling technologies, inevitable human errors and the ultra-deepwater environment. …

Numerous analyses of the Deepwater Horizon accident have pointed to three contributing causes: the complexity and inherent riskiness of oil drilling systems, human and organisational factors and regulatory challenges. In the past half-decade, we have made little progress in these areas. Indeed, the risk of another catastrophic spill may be greater than ever before.

Writing of the “well-documented particularly pernicious tendency of human decision-makers … to interpret evidence in a way that supports” what they already believe, András Tilcsik and Chris Clearfield argue that the accident arose in large part because “operators misinterpreted the results of critical safety tests.”

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They saw what they expected – and wanted – to see. Additionally, under the false assumption that well cementing had gone smoothly, the BP team decided to skip a cement evaluation test earlier in the day, thus saving $128,000 in contractor fees and potentially shortening the lease period of the costly rig. These mistakes … occurred in a culture that focused on minimising costs and preventing occupational injuries  at the expense of an emphasis on preventing catastrophe.

Though engineering fixes have since been implemented (and additional rules recently proposed) to solve some of the specific problems that Deepwater Horizon experienced, cultural and organisational root causes have received less attention in the industry. This is a pattern we see all too often in the wake of catastrophic events. … Then, as time passes, the initial post-disaster period of caution gradually gives way to increasingly bullish overconfidence – until the next disaster strikes.

Fast-sinking oil

In one of four fine science-minded pieces on the spill, National Geographic’s Christine Dell’Amore looked into new findings about why there was so little shoreline fouling and why the slick seemed to shrink so rapidly.

Turns out lots of oil was sinking more rapidly than expected, because of a marine phenomenon that ocean scientists had thought was unusual but may turn out to be fairly typical – and may also extend the problem of seafloor contamination long beyond earlier assumptions.

The phenomenon known as marine snow usually works like this: Phytoplankton that is stressed by oil or chemicals pump out a sticky mucus nicknamed sea snot. This substance glues together algae, feces, and other random bits into clumps that resemble falling snowflakes.

But scientists say something different happened in 2010 after the blowout of BP’s Macondo well. Clay particles from the Missisippi River and dispersants used in cleanup efforts joined the mix, forming a big “dirty blizzard”…. Then heavy, oil-rich particles plummeted to the bottom of the Gulf like stones—”a perfect storm of events.”

Typically, oil takes weeks or months to reach the seafloor; as much as one-tenth of the total oil released in the Macondo blowout settled on the bottom within a few days. And though BP officials naturally dispute all of this, the concern is that persistent contamination at the bottom of the Gulf will cause some unraveling at the base of its food webs.

Not just an offshore problem

While offshore oil production and its risks are in the spotlight because of the Deepwater Horizon anniversary, it’s worth remembering that all oil production carries environmental risks and costs. Writing in Earth Island Journal on Sunday, Elizabeth Grossman made these points:

The enormity and unprecedented scale of the BP disaster demanded a federal emergency response and captured daily headlines for months. But oil spills and pipeline ruptures occur daily – as they have nearly every day since the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, 2010. While many are relatively small in comparison, they still pose threats to public safety, health, and the environment.

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No record of spills from onshore oil and gas operations is maintained by any single federal agency. The Bureau of Land Management requires reporting of “undesirable events” — that is, spills — from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands. But these reports are sent to field offices and not readily accessible. Other onshore spill records are maintained by individual states.

In the top 15 oil and gas producing states, EnergyWire tallied at least 7,662 spills or other releases in 2013, up from 6,546 in 2012. That brings the 2013 total to about 20 such incidents per day that, combined, released some 26 million gallons of oil and related fluids.

When it comes to pipeline ruptures and spills, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration does maintain a list of incidents. But … the database does not work with all web-browsers, so details on these incidents — including cause and any information about volume and type of fuel spilled — is not readily accessible.

Between 2010 and 2014, however, the PHMSA lists 3,072 incidents involving gas or other hazardous liquids. So far in 2015, the agency lists 189 such pipeline incidents. According to the PHMSA, altogether — from 2010 through 2015 — these incidents caused 81 deaths, 378 injuries and more than $2.8 billion in property damage.

These numbers mean that there has been, on average, more than one pipeline incident a day since the beginning of 2010 — a number that has remained fairly steady since 1995.