The (Non)-EventAt the time Blackbeard was the world's deepest oil well: 32,000 feet below the seabed, and potentially had huge reserves, up to 1 billion barrels. Although the prospect looked huge, it was also very risky because of the very high temperatures and pressures in the well.
By September 2006, 500 days after the start of drilling, the well had reached a depth of 30,067 feet, a record at the time, and was within about 2000 feet of its target. However, well conditions were "hellish" - the drillers were experiencing very high temperatures and pressures (more than 29,000 psi). Indeed, the well had already experienced a kick. They were concerned that a blowout could exceed the capacity of the system's blowout preventer.
In the ensuing discussions as to whether to keep going or not, the chairman and CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson, sided with the drillers, i.e., he decided to shut down the project and plug the well with cement. Exxon wrote off Blackbeard as a $187 million dry hole.
ConsequencesBefore the Deepwater Horizon accident, the embodiment of a disastrous oil spill was the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. That accident, for which Exxon was found responsible, led to a profound rethinking of safety management at the company. Exxon developed a rigid system of rules for all its operations, from gas stations to offshore platforms, and it empowered everyone, even contractors, to speak up about safety problems.
Elements of Safety Management
Each of the incidents discussed in this section of the site are analyzed in terms of the elements of Process Safety Management (PSM), with those judged as being most pertinent to that incident being highlighted. In the case of Blackbeard the two highlighted elements are Culture and Hazard Identification.
The Blackbeard incident shows how a company culture can change. In the case of the Exxon company, the Valdez event led to management instituting a safety culture that is among the best in industry.
Today, Exxon stands out among its peers for its obsessive attention to safety, according to analysts and industry insiders.
New York Times, July 12, 2010
Further discussion to do with the topic of Culture is provided at our Meetings page.
Hazard Identification and Risk Management
The best way of reducing risk is to remove the hazards that create that risk. In the case of Blackbeard, Exxon eliminated the risk by abandoning the project (and the potential profits associated with it).
Because nothing actually happened, the Blackbeard incident did not have any direct consequences, such as the creation of new legislation. However, it was used later as a benchmark when the Deepwater Horizon event was being investigated. It showed the different ways in which two large oil companies managed risk. In particular, it showed how a risk of this magnitude was elevated to the most senior levels of management.Just over a year later, drilling was re-started by a smaller company, McMoRan.
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