The loss of control over the Macondo well initiated a tragedy of momentous consequences. Eleven workers lost their lives, and the environment and economy of the gulf region were damaged in ways that are still being assessed. Furthermore, the blowout and subsequent oil spill severely damaged public confidence in both the offshore oil and gas industry and the federal regulatory process. A concerted effort by all participants will be necessary to overcome the reputational damage caused by this event. As the nation struggles with the consequences of dependency on foreign oil, it is appropriate that the risks associated with the exploration for and production of oil be factored into political decisions on where, when, and how to drill. All participants in the industry and regulatory communities have an obligation (a) to ensure that such considerations reflect a factual assessment of the risks, not an emotional one, and (b) to do all that they can to minimize those risks through technology development, personnel training, and management systems. Neither objective is likely to be achieved if the risks and the responsibility for addressing them are not recognized and accepted.
Envisioning failure is key to the safe development and operation of systems, particularly systems that incorporate the complexity of a deepwater well. Risks must be recognized, quantified, and mitigated. Designers, developers, operators, and regulators must know and understand that the risks are real and conduct themselves accordingly. If they do not, they face the likelihood of dealing with the consequences of the risks. There is an old saying in the U.S. Navy that there are only two categories of ship captains—those who have run their ship aground and those who will—and captains who believe that they belong in a third category shortly find that they are part of the first!
Neither industry nor U.S. regulators appear to have foreseen the risks of a Macondo-scale event. Even after the Montara blowout in the West Timor Sea in August 2009, industry and regulators testified before Congress,1 providing assurances concerning the safety of operations in the Gulf of Mexico and the ade-
1Senate Hearing 111-303, Nov. 19, 2009. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-111shrg55331/html/CHRG-111shrg55331.htm. Most recently accessed Jan. 17, 2012.
quacy of the regulatory process. Similarly, the lack of adequate, previously planned capping and containment techniques evidences a failure to envision an incident of the type or magnitude experienced at Macondo.
Today, industry and the regulators are both stating their good intentions. Industry is investing significant resources in capping and containment systems, and regulators are making significant organizational and process changes. The question remains as to whether these efforts are a start toward recognition, acceptance, and active management of the risks inherent in offshore oil and gas development or whether they represent a transitory response. For the sake of those who work offshore, those who live near the Gulf of Mexico, and all those dependent on the U.S. economy, the committee fervently hopes that these efforts are sustained.