By RUSSELL GOLD And BEN CASSELMAN
December 8, 2010
The oil industry has said the Deepwater Horizon rig catastrophe was a unique event, the result of an unprecedented series of missteps that are unlikely to be repeated. The recent history of offshore drilling suggests otherwise.
In the months before and after the rig exploded and sank, killing 11 and spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the industry was hit with several serious spills and alarming near-misses, some of them strikingly similar to what happened aboard the Deepwater Horizon.
A blowout off the coast of Australia left oil flowing into the Timor Sea for weeks. An out-of-control well in the Gulf of Mexico dislodged a 4,000-pound piece of equipment on the deck of the Lorris Bouzigard drilling rig as workers scurried to safety. A gas leak in the North Sea aboard a production platform came within a rogue spark of a Deepwater Horizon-scale disaster off the coast of Norway.
Data from regulators around the world suggest that after years of improvement, the offshore-drilling industry's safety record declined over the past two years.
The Wall Street Journal reviewed statistics from four countries with large offshore oil industries and modern regulatory systems: the U.S., Great Britain, Norway and Australia. (A fifth, Brazil, declined to make its data available.) Each country uses different approaches to measure losses of well control or spills, but they reveal a similar trend.
In the U.S. portion of the Gulf of Mexico in 2009, there were 28 major drilling-related spills, natural-gas releases or incidents in which workers lost control of a well. That is up 4% from 2008, 56% from 2007, and nearly two-thirds from 2006. Taking into account the number of hours worked on offshore rigs, the rate of these incidents rose every year from 2006 to 2009.
The U.K.'s Health and Safety Executive counted 85 serious oil and gas releases in the 12 months ended March 31, up 39% from a year earlier. Taking into account the number of hours worked offshore, the rate of incidents was the highest since 2004-05.
In Norway, companies had 37 oil and gas releases and "well incidents" in 2009, according to the country's offshore regulator. That is up 48% from 2008 and is the highest level since 2003. Norway's rate of incidents per man-hour rose 42% in 2009, to its highest level since 2005.
In Australia in the first half of this year, there were 23 oil spills, gas releases and incidents in which oil or gas entered a well, threatening a blowout, according to Australia's National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority. That is almost as many as the 24 such incidents in all of 2009. The incident rate, accounting for hours worked, has more than doubled since 2005.
"Why does the safety performance of the offshore industry seem to be deteriorating?" asks Jane Cutler, a former oil executive who now heads Australia's offshore regulator. Her answer: "People can forget to be afraid." …