Three decades after an Alberta inquiry blamed the province’s worst natural gas well blowout on human error, Canada’s arctic offshore drilling review has received the same warning to beware of sloppiness from international disaster prevention professionals.

“Investigations conducted into previous major accidents reveal that systemic or organizational deficiencies led or contributed to those accidents,” says a survey of industrial tragedies by Det Norske Veritas.

The National Energy Board (NEB) commissioned the report for a northern review that started as a technical study in 2009 then grew into a public inquiry as a result of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico following the blowout of BP plc’s Macondo well.

Det Norske, a Norwegian counterpart to the risk assessment role of Lloyd’s of London, conducted detailed reviews of seven disasters for the NEB. The calamities included two offshore rig sinkings — Ocean Ranger in 1982 on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the 1988 Piper Alpha wreck in the North Sea — as well as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown in Ukraine, the 1992 Westray mine explosion in Nova Scotia, a 1998 gas plant conflagration at Longford in Australia, the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster and the 2005 Texas City, TX, refinery blast and fire.

The catastrophes exhibited a common pattern, Det Norske reports after combing through the investigations that followed them all.

“Assessment of these accidents indicated that, although most of the organizations had programs or systems developed, they were not effectively implemented or reviewed on a regular basis to monitor the adequacy and effectiveness of the programs,” Det Norske says.

“Also, for most of the incidents an adequate hazard identification and risk assessment process had not been followed. The relevance of these issues becomes important because the basic responsibility for the safe operation of any activity lies with management of the organization, which must ensure all the applicable programs and systems are implemented, reviewed and updated on a regular basis to reflect any required improvements.”

The pattern of human error is not confined to the companies involved, Det Norske says. Public authorities also have to accept responsibility: “In addition, in most cases the applicable regulatory oversight was not comprehensive or focused enough to ensure gaps were identified and the required corrective and preventive actions were developed and implemented.”

In Alberta industry and regulatory circles, the warning is familiar. Det Norske’s findings are virtually identical to results of the provincial Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) inquiry into the 1982 Lodgepole sour-gas well blowout.

At a site little more than a one-hour drive southwest of the provincial capital of Edmonton, the drilling disaster spewed out a witch’s brew of methane, hydrogen-sulfide and condensate or natural gasoline vapor for 67 days.

The release averaged 50 MMcf/d of gas and 6,650 b/d of liquids. Witnesses, blowout fighters and ERCB staff described going close to the well as like standing beside a jet engine cranked up to full power. Two well control specialists from Texas were killed and numerous personnel were injured.

The lethal element was the hydrogen-sulfide, a nerve gas akin to cyanide that causes immediate loss of consciousness, permanent brain damage and rapid death in atmospheric concentrations of 700 parts per million (ppm) or more. The deadly content of the Lodgepole blowout was 25%, or 250,000 ppm.

“It is clear that the major area of deficiency relates to the ‘human factor’,” concluded a prolonged ERCB inquiry that produced two reports. “An effective means of reducing the impact of human factor problems would be to require . . . a very cautious and careful manner,” said the board.

All the correct hardware for sour gas drilling and blowout control was said to be on hand at Lodgepole. But the gear was neither kept in good working condition nor used properly. Hearings, technical investigations and a simulated re-run of the blowout’s sequence of events “indicated that the failure probably would not have occurred had appropriate practices been followed, notwithstanding the equipment problems,” the ERCB reported.

Lodgepole rapidly led to creation of a new safety regime that remains in effect and strictly enforced by 115 roving ERCB inspectors who frequently pay unannounced calls on drilling rigs across the province.

Requirements include mandatory hydrogen-sulfur safety training for all new gas-field hands (and visitors to rigs and well sites such as news media), refresher courses for veterans, demonstrated constant awareness of risks, readiness at all times to handle unexpected problems, technical support, drilling safety plans with clear instructions, and improved working conditions such as relief staff to let ’round-the-clock well site commanders get some sleep.

Rapid ignition of sour-gas blowouts, at the cost of destroying drilling equipment, became standard emergency procedure to incinerate the hydrogen-sulfide into obnoxious but less immediately lethal sulfur-dioxide.

“The primary responsibility for ensuring that these objectives are achieved lies with industry,” the inquiry said. But regulators have a role too. “The ERCB has a responsibility to test whether these objectives are being achieved, and in that regard the inspection system should be carefully reviewed to determine how it can be strengthened to minimize human factor problems.”

The NEB, taking its cue from the established disaster pattern, also commissioned a technical “spill response gap study” by an Ottawa consulting firm, S.L. Ross Environmental Research Ltd.

The report highlights special arctic factors that industrial safety and cleanup programs need to take into account such as unpredictable sea-ice movements even in summer, brief warm seasons, short daylight hours in spring and fall, around-the-clock darkness in winter, fierce winds, potentially lethal cold, and limitations on use of aircraft.

The NEB inquiry continues, with public meetings planned amid widespread popular skepticism that arctic offshore operations can be made safe but persistence in devising technology and programs by oil and gas producers holding thousands of square miles of exploration licenses.

©Copyright 2011Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news reportmay not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in anyform, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.