Deepwater disaster one year on: BP SharePoint system in major safety review

One year on from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which raised major IT management and spill modelling software questions, BP has vowed to review its safety systems.


One year on from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which raised major IT management and spill modelling software questions, BP has vowed to review its safety systems.

The spill, which followed the Deepwater rig explosion, was branded the worst environmental disaster in US history, as millions of barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. The forensic investigations that followed revealed serious issues around IT systems.

Bob Dudley, BP chief executive, at this month’s annual general meeting told shareholders the company was “conducting a major review of our risk management system”, geared towards improving standards and processes. As he made the comments, angry fishermen and women from the Gulf protested outside the building about the continued challenges they face.

BP’s overhaul is understood to focus in part around its Operating Management System, developed by BP in-house and built around Microsoft SharePoint and Performance Point, and implemented globally in locally tailored modules.

But the company has in the past raised doubts around OMS, saying it “there can be no assurance” that the system would identify all risks or provide information on the right actions to take when things go wrong.

The investigations into the Gulf of Mexico tragedy highlighted the many IT issues to be addressed, by BP, its partners on the rig, regulators and other giants in the oil industry which are understood to face similar challenges.

One of the most damning technology revelations in the government reports was that advanced modelling software had analysed before the drill that BP needed 21 stabilisers, known as centralisers, to support the well. When BP received the fifteen extra devices needed, it mistakenly thought it had the wrong ones, and in order to speed up operations went ahead with only the six existing devices.

The issue raises questions around what software is relied on, how accurate it is, and what level of predictive tests are required by regulators before risky deepwater drills take place.

BP’s email trail also proved revealing. BP engineer Brian Morel sent an email to a colleague after the centralisers decision was made, saying “Who cares, it’s done, end of story, we’ll probably be fine”.

Then there is the issue of monitoring software on the rig. Government reports found that the Halliburton Sperry Sun system and the HiTec system from rig owner Transocean clearly displayed unusual oil pressures in the well, before the explosion, but that the software lacked proper alarms to alert tired engineers who had spent up to 12 hours at a time in front of their monitors.

An electrician on the rig had also testified that desktop systems on the rig were crashing on the lead up to the spill.

Most recently, government scientists completed a forensic evaluation of the blowout preventer, designed to control the well head and prevent accidents. Those investigations revealed the BOP, manufactured by Cameron, lacked proper backup IT systems, and that regulators did not provide good guidance on standards.

BP has created a new safety division, and has insisted it was addressing issues raised in the reports. At this month’s AGM, Dudley said: “Over the last few months we have put in place a comprehensive programme of activity to strengthen safety and risk management in BP.”

The safety division “has the resources and the mandate to drive safe, reliable, and compliant operations in BP’s operations anywhere in the world”, he said.

Transocean, the owner that leased the rig to BP, and Cameron, which manufactured the BOP, have both said they are working with the industry to improve safety. They said the BOP functioned as designed and that the unusual events took it beyond the specifications.

A series of factors led to the accident, but IT systems played a substantial role in the haunting chain of events that led to the disaster.

Serious questions are now pressing around technology. Whether regulators demand a change, or the oil industry as a whole acts fully on these points, is another question.

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