Higher education the key to safer offshore oil drilling

Posted July 22, 2010, at 7:55 p.m.

BP has had the cap sitting on the wellhead for a couple days and the oil has finally stopped gushing. It’s hurricane season. The six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is still in full effect. What’s next?

What are the impacts going to be for the fisherman and those who make their living on the gulf? Will BP

remain solvent and honor and pay outstanding claims? What will be the long-term environmental impacts? What will be the social, political and policy fallout of this disaster? I wish I knew. Time will tell.

One certainty is that the public’s opinions and attitudes toward offshore oil drilling has been irreparably damaged, and our dependence on oil, at least here in America, is still very strong. It has been so convenient to use BP as a punching bag for all that went wrong.

The results of the investigation are still pending, and I’ll leave that to the experts. What’s painful to acknowledge is that the incident in the gulf is a reflection of our behavior on a much broader scale.

Things, euphemistically speaking, have been going very well for a long time. We’ve grown soft, lazy, and lack commitment, energy and attention to detail. And for all of the hindsight and finger-pointing that has gone on since the night of the accident, how many would have stepped up and risked their careers if they were in the position to make difficult decisions that night? That’s hard to say.

I’ve talked with some of the guys out here on the Spirit, some of the “old-timers” with 15-plus years of experience. They say that the industry has grown too quickly, that personnel were promoted before they were really ready, sometimes with less than a year’s experience in position, before being moved up to the next spot.

This is in stark contrast to years past, during lean times, when personnel would often spend years in the same position before being promoted. No doubt slow growth is not exciting. However, there are some advantages.

First is that more experienced personnel really get to learn the rig, its equipment and what to expect over a wide range of operational conditions. This experience generally brings confidence and know-how. The downside of this is that slow growth can quickly lead to complacency, attitudes and behaviors that are generally negative, are not a good example for others or morale, don’t show initiative to learn, and discourage others from improving themselves.

Rapid growth generally accompanies a steep learning curve and delusions of invincibility. It’s great to learn you’re not invincible. Sometimes it even proves deadly. Rapid growth or simply observing rapid growth in others around you can lead to jealousy, poor performance and unrealistic expectations. Add this to complacency, homesickness, fatigue and high stress. This is not a good mix.

Before this disaster we had what I thought was a pretty stringent safety program and lots of paperwork. I don’t suppose that all of this is going to result in any less paperwork, especially not since the government is involved. I would think that one end result would be to increase the level of regulation and make requirements to obtaining well control credentials far more difficult to achieve, to the point where a driller, tool pusher, or subsea engineer would actually have to require a license, with a difficult test involved.

How about an oil field academy? Train cadets, hands, whatever you want to call them for careers in the oilfield. Sound far-fetched? The maritime academies were founded rather quickly to pump out young officers for the merchant fleet that was taking a beating at the hands of the German U-boats during World War II.

If the oil field worker doesn’t clean up his public image and perception, he may soon be permanently out of a job, at least in the U.S.

The academy(s) could prepare graduates for what they’d be likely to encounter in a career on the rig. Business courses could be offered to cover rig budgets. And, of course, best practices in safety could be covered at great length. The academy could collaborate with drilling contractors to allow students to intern, or even work an offshore rotation and take classes onshore and online while offshore. Existing maritime academies may do well to include and embrace this sector of the economy that employs so many maritime graduates.

I’m writing this from my bunk room after I worked a 12-hour shift in the heat as a mechanic offshore. What I’ve just suggested may not ever pan out. However, if this industry is truly serious about securing its future, something along these lines may be in order.

Jesse McIntire of Orono is working on the Transocean Discoverer Spirit in the Gulf of Mexico.

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