Lessons for Improving Offshore Drilling Safety: Final Report from the Deepwater Horizon Committee

To reduce the risk of another accident as catastrophic as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, a new report from the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council says, companies involved in offshore drilling should take a “system safety” approach to anticipating and managing possible dangers at every level of operation — from ensuring the integrity of wells to designing blowout preventers that function “under all foreseeable conditions.”  In addition, an enhanced regulatory approach should combine strong industry safety goals with mandatory oversight at critical points during drilling operations.

The report says the lack of effective safety management among the companies involved in the Macondo Well-Deepwater Horizon disaster is evident in the multiple flawed decisions that led to the blowout and explosion, which killed 11 workers and produced the biggest accidental oil spill in U.S. history.  Regulators also failed to exercise effective oversight.

“The need to maintain domestic sources of oil is great, but so is the need to protect the lives of those who work in the offshore drilling industry as well as protect the viability of the Gulf of Mexico region,” said Donald C. Winter, former secretary of the Navy, professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.  “Industry and regulators need to include a factual assessment of all the risks in deepwater drilling operations in their decisions and make the overall safety of the many complex systems involved a top priority.”

Despite challenging geological conditions, alternative techniques and processes were available that could have been used to prepare the exploratory Macondo well safely for “temporary abandonment” — sealing it until the necessary infrastructure could be installed to support hydrocarbon production, the report says.  In addition, several signs of an impending blowout were missed by management and crew, resulting in a failure to take action in a timely manner.  And despite numerous past warnings of potential failures of blowout preventer (BOP) systems, both industry and regulators had a “misplaced trust” in the ability of these systems to act as fail-safe mechanisms in the event of a well blowout.

BOP systems commonly in use — including the system used by the Deepwater Horizon — are neither designed nor tested to operate in the dynamic conditions that occurred during the accident.  BOP systems should be redesigned, rigorously tested, and maintained to operate reliably, the report says.  Proper training in the use of these systems in the event of an emergency is also essential.  And while BOP systems are being improved, industry should ensure timely access to demonstrated capping and containment systems that can be rapidly deployed during a future blowout.

Operating companies should have ultimate responsibility and accountability for well integrity, the report says, because only they possess the ability to view all aspects of well design and operation.  The drilling contractor should be held responsible and accountable for the operation and safety of the offshore equipment.  Both industry and regulators should significantly expand the formal education and training of personnel engaged in offshore drilling to ensure that they can properly implement system safety.  Guidelines should be established so that well designs incorporate protection against the various credible risks associated with the drilling and abandonment process.  In addition, cemented and mechanical barriers designed to contain the flow of hydrocarbons in wells should be tested to make sure they are effective, and those tests should be subject to independent, near real-time review by a competent authority.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s recent establishment of a Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) program — which requires companies to demonstrate procedures for meeting explicit goals related to health, safety, and environmental protection — is a “good first step” toward an enhanced regulatory approach.  Regulators should identify and enforce safety-critical points that warrant explicit regulatory review and approval before operations can proceed.

Offshore drilling operations are currently governed by a number of agencies, sometimes with overlapping authorities.  The U.S. should make a single government agency responsible for integrating system safety for all offshore drilling activities.  Reporting of safety-related incidents should be improved to enable anonymous input, and corporations should investigate all such reports and disseminate lessons learned to personnel and the industry as a whole.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.

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Committee on the Analysis of Causes of the Deepwater Horizon Explosion, Fire, and Oil Spill to Identify Measures to Prevent Similar Accidents in the Future

Donald C. Winter (chair) *

Former Secretary of the Navy, and

Professor of Engineering Practice

Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor

Paul M. Bommer

Senior Lecturer

Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering

University of Texas


Chryssostomos Chryssostomidis

Doherty Professor of Ocean Science and Engineering

Department of Ocean Engineering

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


David E. Daniel*


University of Texas


Thomas J. Eccles

Rear Admiral, and

Chief Engineer and Deputy Commander for Naval Systems Engineering

U.S. Navy

Washington, D.C.

Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr.

Private Consultant and retired U.S. Navy Admiral

Warwick, Md.

David A. Hofmann

Professor of Organizational Behavior

Kenan-Flager Business School

University of North Carolina

Chapel Hill

Roger L. McCarthy*

Private Engineering Consultant

Palo Alto, Calif.

Najmedin Meshkati

Professor of Engineering

Viterbi School of Engineering

University of Southern California

Los Angeles

Keith K. Millheim* (resigned Nov. 2011)

Director and Owner

Strategic Worldwide LLC

The Woodlands, Texas

Elisabeth Paté-Cornell*

Burt and Deedee McMurty Professor

Department of Management Science and Engineering

Stanford University

Stanford, Calif.

Robert F. Sawyer*

Class of 1935 Professor of Energy Emeritus

Department of Mechanical Engineering

University of California


Jocelyn E. Scott

Chief Engineer and Vice President of Engineering, Facilities,

and Real Estate


Wilmington, Del.

Arnold F. Stancell*

Turner Professor of Chemical Engineering Emeritus

Georgia Institute of Technology, and

Vice President of Mobil Oil (retired)

Greenwich, Conn.

Mark D. Zoback*

Benjamin M. Page Professor of Earth Science, and


Department of Geophysics

Stanford University

Stanford, Calif.


Raymond A. Wassel

Study Director

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