Add BP's own study to the pile of complaints and reports about safety, maintenance and cost cutting at the Prudhoe Bay oil field. What's most striking is that BP's work -- based on interviews with 300 workers -- largely substantiates questions raised by whistle-blowers who argue that operations aren't safe enough at North America's largest oil field. There's a pattern here that looks chillingly close to the inattention and neglect that preceded the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.
The source and approach for this study are laudable. BP itself undertook to find out whether there was fire beneath the smoke that produced a story in The Wall Street Journal and more or less continual criticism from industry gadfly Chuck Hamel. (BP now operates the Prudhoe Bay field on behalf of itself and the other major lease holders, Phillips and Exxon Mobil.) The study team BP assembled included engineers, environmental experts, operations workers, a lawyer who has represented whistle-blowers and various technical consultants. To BP's credit, the report looks candidly at current practices and shortcomings. And it identifies problems that ought to raise red flags all over the place -- not only for the industry but for state regulators as well.
Concerns include communications, maintenance backlogs, staffing levels, worker safety, management turnover, environmental risk, emergency response, spare parts inventories, deteriorating equipment and outmoded design. Taken in sum, they point to deterioration of a complex, crucially important but aging industrial system. After a decade of cost cutting and deferred maintenance in the oil patch, BP's own report substantiates a growing risk to the system.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Every investigation after the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 found that ultimately the wreck was a systems failure as much as an individual foul-up. Capt. Joe Hazelwood screwed up royally the night the Exxon Valdez went on the rocks, but human beings, regrettably, will often make mistakes. The larger problem was that his errors weren't corrected -- that a breakdown of safeguards, redundancy, industry vigilance and public oversight ultimately led a series of mistakes to become a calamity.
Presumably there's less risk of environmental atrocity at Prudhoe Bay than in Prince William Sound. But Prudhoe Bay and its aging facilities are a major contributor to the national energy supply and Alaska's economic lifeblood. Deferring maintenance on an aging field is false economy, because older, deteriorating facilities need greater attention and repair than newer ones. Prudhoe Bay, moreover, remains hugely profitable -- a cash cow that generates plenty of revenue to pay for prudent operations.
The larger issue is vigilance. Making sure the facilities are operating safely is the job not only of BP but also of state regulators enforcing the terms of leases and permits. With a laudably upfront approach to the situation, BP has begun correcting operations problems. Perhaps the most important thing about this report is that BP can now take its own word for it regarding the risks.
The mission now is not only to fix old problems. That's a given. The full purpose is to anticipate and prevent new ones -- just as a better system of oversight and safeguards should have prevented the Exxon Valdez disaster. The state owes itself a more effective oversight role, and soon. State oversight is not about punishing or clamping down on the industry but about protecting our own most important asset -- and establishing a reputation for good stewardship that will help sell the idea of exploration and production elsewhere, such as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
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