From the President
April 2015

Robert Sims

Deepwater Five Years Later

It’s hard to believe that nearly five years have passed since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. That explosion, which occurred on April 20, 2010, not only triggered unprecedented contamination of the northern Gulf of Mexico, but also launched an unparalleled research and investigative effort to evaluate the effects of the massive spill, in which an estimated five million barrels of crude oil gushed into the pristine waters of the Gulf over 91 days. It also prompted industry leaders, engineers, government officials and others to take measures to prevent such incidents from ever happening again.

In an article that ran on ASME.org in September 2011, Deconstructing the Deepwater Horizon Blowout, it was reported that the blowout preventer valves and the shear rams designed to cut through and seal the drill pipe failed, allowing oil and gas to surge up to the rig floor and trigger the explosion that sadly took the lives of 11 workers.

While innovation and the evolution of engineering technology are making invaluable contributions to the betterment of our lives and advancing our knowledge, we also know that mitigating risk will always be an important part of the engineering equation.

The June 2011 ASME report Initiative to Address Complex Systems Failure: Prevention and Mitigation of Consequences stated that “Now more than ever, there is a need to address these dynamic and far-reaching system failures.” The report went on to say that while events such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks and human error are bound to occur, engineers can design complex systems to help manage risk and to “reduce the likelihood of cascading failures.”

Later this year, I’ve been invited to speak at the World Engineering Conference and Convention, in Kyoto, Japan, to talk about the lessons engineers have learned from another disaster — the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident — a result of the great Japan earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. In the ASME report, Forging a New Nuclear Safety Construct, a Presidential Task Force commissioned by then-ASME President Victoria Rockwell stated that Fukushima revealed new information on nuclear power plant vulnerabilities to extreme external events and advocated the need for permanent improvements to existing plants and new designs to address “beyond design basis” events. The nuclear industry has responded by developing new standards and guidance to minimize the probability of occurrence and to better mitigate the consequences of future accidents.

We all know that as new cutting-edge technologies are implemented and systems become more complex, the need to manage risk and to apply safety and operational standards becomes ever more paramount. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal announced that the Obama administration has proposed new offshore oil and natural gas drilling regulations aimed at preventing the kind of explosion that occurred on the Deepwater Horizon rig. The proposed regulations, which target the reliability of drilling equipment in offshore drilling operations, will require oil and gas companies to perform tests and maintenance on their blowout preventers, a key piece of drilling equipment. The Interior Department regulations are aimed at imposing tougher standards on equipment designed to keep control of a well and require real-time monitoring of certain kinds of deep water drilling or drilling performed under high pressure. In addition, the oil and gas industry has responded aggressively by developing new guidance and is continuing to work to ensure the integrity of offshore operations.

Engineers will continue to play a key role in improving the safety and reliability of deepwater and other energy technologies. As stated in the June 2011 report, “experience, knowledge and tools across industries are needed to aid engineers in designing fault-tolerant systems, assessing and managing risk in systems operation, and considering the ethical responsibility associated with the management and maintenance of complex systems.”

It’s precisely this dedication to ongoing innovation and public safety that unites us as engineers and makes me so proud to be a part of our global ASME community.

So I say again: what an honor to be one of you, and what a great opportunity it is to serve this profession in its many and varied aspects.

J. Robert Sims
ASME President