Offshore Safety in the Wake of the Macondo Disaster: Business as Usual or Sea Change?

By Weaver, Jacqueline L. | Houston Journal of International Law, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Offshore Safety in the Wake of the Macondo Disaster: Business as Usual or Sea Change?


Weaver, Jacqueline L., Houston Journal of International Law


2. The future vision of technology

In the longer term, the industry will replace humans with robots. (137) Norway's Robotic Drilling Systems is designing robots to take over the repeatable tasks now done by roughnecks and pipe handlers. (138) It has contracted with NASA to learn the secrets of the Martian explorer, the Curiosity Rover. (139) The company predicts that fully automated rigs will someday travel to drill sites guided by satellite coordinates and construct a fourteen-story steel tower, drill wells, and then move on to the next job. (140) Wave-powered and solar-powered robots already roam the world's oceans autonomously for as long as a year, acquiring data on ocean currents crucial to deciding where to site an offshore rig. (141) They can also perform seismic monitoring and detect seepage from oil drilling. (142) Shell is developing "flying nodes," small aquatic drones that will swim in schools and collect seismic data from the seafloor. (143) RPSEA, the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, is working on a next-generation autonomous robot drone that can spiral around an aging platform and spot anomalies in a mere six days. (144) The head of the new subsea engineering program at the University of Houston envisions "underwater oil cit[ies] overseen by swimming robots" in the not-too-distant future. (145)

Many in the industry are looking to eliminate human error by eliminating humans in the drilling process. (146) Field tests of Schlumberger's Drilling Advisor System reported that drilling with a computer in control "easily outperformed" human control. (147) Computers can manipulate data on fifteen factors, while a human driller can only handle about five factors. (148) While this technological invention aimed primarily at reducing costs of drilling rather than increasing safety in response to Macondo, the company reported the unexpected benefit of a sharp drop in equipment failures. (149)

The industry envisions a surge of unmanned facilities by 2030. (150) A company's best technical experts will be working from home base, looking after facilities around the world. (151) Drillers will be like pilots and "manage the flight" rather than actually fly the plane, which is done by the autopilot system. (152) Computer-controlled devices can execute certain procedures better than a person because human reaction times are too slow to make constant, small adjustments. (153) The driller's role will be to accurately program the system, monitor progress, anticipate problems, and intervene in an emergency. (154) Drilling technology will parallel the innovations proceeding apace in self-driving cars. (155)

3. Assessment of technology's role

Government regulation can play a significant role in spurring the invention and use of better and safer technologies and more effective oil spill response. Many of our pollution-control statutes seek to ratchet up industry performance by requiring more advanced control technologies for new plants than is required for existing ones. (156)

The current statutory framework for U.S. offshore leasing was constructed in 1978 at a time of great upheaval in the Mideast oil markets that had raised the price of crude oil imports to record levels. (157) The 1978 amendments to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) aimed to increase domestic offshore leasing and production, but with strong safeguards, one of which required using the "best available and safest technologies" found by the Secretary of Interior to be "economically feasible wherever failure of equipment would have a significant effect on safety, health or the environment." (158) Only if the Secretary determined that the "incremental benefits are clearly insufficient to justify the incremental costs of utilizing [the best and safest] technologies," was something less than the best to be used. (159)

The Macondo disaster clearly calls into question whether this provision was being implemented offshore for blowout preventer technology. …

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Offshore Safety in the Wake of the Macondo Disaster: Business as Usual or Sea Change?
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