Thursday, September 23, 2010

Steven Chu's A-ha Moment

I'm unlikely to ever win a Nobel Prize, but today I have something in common with the 1997 winner of the prize for Physics, Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Like me, Dr. Chu believes Flying Lessons can and should be applied elsewhere, starting with the oil industry.
"We have over the last half century developed procedures which are different from what I've seen in this industry," Dr. Chu said on Wednesday while suggesting oil could learn a lot about safety from aviation. "One doesn't have to reinvent a lot of things."

You've got that right Dr. Chu. I'm preparing to be interviewed for a Discovery Channel series on aviation disasters tomorrow, and as I review my notes on various airplane accidents, I'm reminded of just how much progress has been made in the design of the machinery and the practices that seek to optimize human performance.

Why oh why haven't these lessons been applied outside aviation? Well, I've speculated about that in previous blogs which you can read here and here. So let's take a look at some of the weaknesses in offshore oil drilling cited by Secretary Chu, as reported in today's Miami Herald. I promise, you don't need to be a physicist to follow along.

Absence of Government Oversight

The buzz phrase "absence of government oversight", has of course been tossed around since the April 20, 2010 explosion on the Deep Water Horizon drilling platform that killed 11 workers and began the spill of nearly 5 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

But Tom Anthony of the Viterbi School of Engineering at University of Southern California says that's not a completely accurate characterization. (Read his paper on the subject here.)

"I don't think there was a absence of government oversight but there was inadequate oversight. The oversight was inadequate for the level of hazards being encountered in this environment."
Thomas Anthony  Director Aviation Safety USC

The Federal Aviation Administration is a $9 billion dollar agency with aerospace safety its top priority. Say what you will about how well it does its job - some days better than others - but more than a decade ago, the agency shed its role as a  promoter of aviation because of the inherent conflict.

But at the Department of the Interior which oversees domestic oil production, the promotion of offshore oil drilling remains part of the mission.

Less than one month before the Deep Water Horizon explosion, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was talking about "expanded development" and oil production in new areas, including the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

I don't know if the separation of these conflicting roles is necessary, but one thing's for sure, analyzing the risks, hazards and necessary safety systems cannot be done by the oil industry alone.

Tom Anthony is director of the Aviation Safety Program at USC. He saw the disconnect between the oil industry and aviation on the subject of safety from the start. There's a direct correlation between oil development and aviation, he told me. "They are both operating in a hazard-rich environment." More than new regulations will be needed to bring oil up to the safety standards of aviation.  

"What needs to be in place is a formalized process whereby those people in position of authority can analyse the facts, the hazards and costs and make a reasoned, responsible judgment on what is acceptable and what isn't." That's what Tom calls the second wheel. What's the first? A comprehensive effort to identify and quantify hazards.

Its only by taking this top down aproach that the other items on Dr. Chu's list can be addressed.  For example, the secretary cited BP's faulty industry response plans, a lack of redundant systems and a challenging operating environment. But to me, these items are too grainular. The kind of safety managment system airlines are required to have take into account those nettlesome issues and more.

But Dr. Chu has had an ah-ha moment and aviation safety specialists are cheering him on. Let's hope he, Salazar and everyone else on the guest list to develop an oil industry safety strategy for the future turn to aviation to get the lesson right.






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