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Bonga, Endeavour & Macondo

By Adedayo Ojo

Explosions, leaks and spills that occur in the course of oil and gas operations are very ugly incidents. As philosophical musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was wont to say:  “they leave sorrow, tears and blood”. In the aftermath of disasters, companies’ reputations take a knock, revenue takes a dip, the ecosystem is damaged – sometimes permanently; people die, sometimes within seconds.

While there are no fool proof templates to manage disasters, the deft handling could offer positive lessons. Certain elements of disaster management stand out as key in the response strategy – swiftness of response, collaborative effort, commitment and involvement of senior management as well expression of genuine care and concern.

A review of some fairly recent disasters is eye opening.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, also referred to as the BP or Macondo blowout,was an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which flowed unabated for three months in 2010. It was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The spill stemmed from a sea-floor oil gusher that resulted from the explosion of Deepwater Horizon which drilled on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect. The explosion killed 11 men working on the platform and injured 17 others.

On July 15, 2010, the leak was stopped by capping the gushing wellhead,after it had released about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil.An estimated 53,000 barrels per day escaped from the well before it was capped. On September 19, 2010, the relief well process was successfully completed, and the American government declared the well “effectively dead”.

The management of the Macondo disaster is a case study in multi stakeholder collaboration.  Agencies of the American government that collaborated to manage the disaster included: Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of the Interior (DOI), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Small Business Administration, Department of Defense, Department of Labor, Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior’s National Park Service as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Collaboration among these agencies and coordination with BP, the effective “owner” of the spill, ensured that nothing was left to chance. Collaboration ensured that all grounds were covered. The response was not perfect, but collaboration helped a lot.

On December 20, 2011, a leak was discovered in the Shell-operated Bonga offshore oil field, located off the Nigerian Coast. Shell claimed that an export line from the Bonga floating, production, storage and off-loading (FPSO) vessel caused the leak.

Indigenes and fishermen of the communities in Bayelsa State raised an alarm over the gradual spread of crude oil from the oil field into their rivers, waterways and other parts of the state. Similar fears were expressed in some coastal communities in Delta State, when crude oil suspected to have floated from Bonga spread across the Beniboye, Odimodi, Ogulagha and Forcados rivers.

According to the Shell’s estimates, 40,000 barrels of crude oil escaped into the Atlantic Ocean endangering aquatic life 120 kilometres off the coast.

Soon after the leak, Shell said it spotted another spill which it claimed was from a third-party vessel in the vicinity of the Bonga spill. Shell also argued that the other spill was hampering its efforts to clean up its own spill. This was a classic case of a phantom spill. Regulation says: clean up the spill first whenever you sight one.

Shell distanced itself from any landed oil and said in a written statement: “Satellite and aerial imagery has confirmed that the Bonga oil leak could not have reached coastlines in the eastern Niger Delta, as some media articles have suggested.”

It continued: “We were disappointed to see images of a third party spill, which appeared to be from a vessel, in the middle of the area that we had previously cleaned up. We are taking samples of the third party spill as part of the joint investigation in order to establish beyond doubt that this is not Bonga oil on the beach. It will be good if all parties would wait for the outcome of the investigation.”  All waited, except, of course, the spreading oil slick.

On January 16, 2012, fire broke out on the Endeavour, a rig that was providing service to Chevron Nigeria Limited in Bayelsa State, following a massive eruption of gas that triggered explosion on the drilling machine.

The fire claimed two lives – French and Indian nationals. 152 others were rescued.

While the fire raged, Peter Idabor, Director General of Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency(NOSDRA), told journalists that the fire was not stopped because of health and environmental reasons.

Maintaining that the existing law in the nation’s oil sector was hampering the agency from imposing harder sanctions against offending companies, he said: “We have enabling laws which give teeth to regulatory agencies like us. But what we want now is . . .  the National Assembly to help us pass the amendments before them so that we can come hard on these companies.”

Is something wrong with the way disasters are managed around here?  A lot can  be learnt from the way Macondo was managed. Yes, the Macondo explosion was bigger than Bonga and Endeavour, yet it is clear that the system deployed to manage Macondo was world class while those for Bonga and Endeavour were simply feeble.

There was certain swiftness to the Macondo response. The efforts to salvage and contain, as well as close-up the well started almost immediately and only got bigger, without let-up, until the well was declared ‘dead’.

So was the collaboration. Macondo highlighted the advantages of having all hands were on deck. At least eleven agencies of government teamed up to get the job done. Diverse expertise was brought to bear on the one task of managing a life-threatening disaster.

Senior people at BP were seen to be involved. Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP under whose watch the explosion occurred had to sacrifice his job. Meanwhile, there was a clear lack of ownership on the part of Shell and Chevron. Senior people were absent or spoke from the sidelines. This, unfortunately, is the standard practice here.

Then those whose actions have caused a measure of damaged to others should show genuine care and concern, seeing it as a responsibility to ensure that those whose lives have been adversely affected must be cared for. No one should wait to be compelled to do so or try to wriggle out of it.

Finally government should ensure that the laws are strengthened to enable enforcers have the bite to discourage irresponsible behavior.

Adedayo OjoAdedayo Ojo is Lead Consultant/CEO of Caritas Communications Limited, a specialist reputation strategy and corporate communication consultancy based in Lagos.
Caritas is the West Africa affiliate of Regester Larkin, a pioneer reputation strategy/management consultancy with offices in London, Washington and United Arab Emirates


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