ORONO – A successful plan to resume deepwater oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and prevent even greater dependence on imports must do more than make a case that the moratorium on drilling threatens to worsen our nation’s energy security.

It must address the fundamental cause of the Deepwater Horizon blow-out and catastrophic oil spill: the failure to do something about the dismal state of safety in the oil industry.

The major oil companies should be looking first at the safety side — not to place the blame for the disaster where it originated but to ensure that the same mistakes are not made again. They should adopt what has worked for the nuclear industry: a culture of safety in the workplace.

In the wake of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the nuclear industry created the Atlanta-based Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, known as INPO, to help ensure that reactors are operated safely. INPO’s first chief executive was retired Navy Adm. Dennis Wilkerson, who had been commander of the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine.

Wilkerson was instrumental in fostering a culture of safety in commercial nuclear power that is a model for other industries.The performance of U.S. nuclear plants has been excellent, with reactors operating safely and producing electricity more than 90 percent of the time, compared to 60 percent in the 1970s.

One reason is that INPO trains reactor operators using simulated control-room panels, establishes performance guidelines and objectives for the industry and conducts regular evaluations of nuclear plants by teams of engineers and other professionals. This is in addition to power plant inspections by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

And INPO makes certain tha utilities exchange information about the performance of reactor safety systems and the use of new technology.

The Gulf drilling disaster might have been averted if the oil industry had a comparable organization.

William Reilly, a former EPA administrator who was recently appointed co-chairman of a special commission to investigate the Deepwater Horizon blow-out, said the oil industry should emulate the nuclear industry by creating an organization patterned on INPO. Anyone who questions the need for such an organization forgets that the oil industry has a checkered history of workplace accidents.

After an explosion and fire five years ago at BP’s Texas City refinery took the lives of 15 workers and injured many others, a blue-ribbon panel of experts found “serious deviations from safe operating practices” at all five BP refineries in the United States.

The panel, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, emphasized that the problems were not restricted to one oil company. “We are under no illusion that deficiencies in process safety culture, management or corporate oversight are limited to BP.”

Some of the panel’s words bear repeating because the catastrophic blow-out in the Gulf shows how quickly history’s lessons can be forgotten. It said that preventing accidents requires “vigilance” and that oil companies need to regularly and thoroughly evaluate their safety culture.

“When people lose an appreciation of how their safety systems were intended to work,” the panel said, “safety systems and controls can deteriorate, lessons can be forgotten, and hazards and deviations from safe operating procedures can be accepted. Workers and supervisors can increasingly rely on how things were done before, rather than rely on sound engineering principles and other controls. People can forget to be afraid.”

The oil industry never adopted the Baker panel’s recommendation on building an industry-wide safety culture following the refinery accident. How it responds now to the Gulf oil disaster will be revealing. Will it continue business as usual? Or will it recognize that the safety issues are fundamental, that following safe drilling procedures are critically important, that taking reckless shortcuts breeds corrosive cynicism and erodes the trust upon which corporations depend?

BP’s response to the refinery disaster — and the panel’s recommendations — is not encouraging. The company was fined $87 million in penalties by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration because it had failed to make promised upgrades after the Texas City disaster.

A senior OSHA official, testifying before a Senate subcommittee, characterized BP as one particularly bad repeat offender in an industry teeming with hardcore recidivists. Let’s hope public anger over the oil spill shakes the oil industry out of its complacency.


– Special to The Press Herald