Strategizing for the unanticipated

Location. Location. Location. Who would have guessed that the most problematic issue confronting participants in an unusual crisis response exercise was the question of where to locate the unified response command post.

Location. Location. Location. Who would have guessed that the most problematic issue confronting participants in an unusual crisis response exercise was the question of where to locate the unified response command post. That is one of several important lessons that surfaced recently when a diverse group of senior-level industry executives and leaders from the regulatory community gathered to conduct an unorthodox exercise in strategic thinking, response preparedness, and team building.

Held at the National Ocean Industries Association's (NOIA) Fall Meeting, the symposium was an unscripted learning exercise that attempted to draw out and examine the strategic thought processes of the executives who wield the ultimate authority - and bear the ultimate responsibility - in the event of an emergency. Truly a unique forum, the symposium focused on the broader, executive-level determinations that shape the character of a company's response instead of the tactical, operational details.

Chuck Webster, the symposium facilitator, laid out the scenario for the panelists. His story began on an ordinary October day in an area of the Gulf of Mexico about 170 miles south of Mobile and 180 miles southeast of New Orleans. A dynamically positioned drillship was drilling a confirmation well in 6,700 ft water depth for a fictional second-tier integrated oil company.

As the rig approached a projected total depth of 25,000 ft, the well experienced a major gas kick. Simultaneously, the vessel's primary and back-up positioning systems failed. For unknown reasons, the riser broke off just above the blowout preventers, which had also failed, thus triggering a major release of crude oil and natural gas from the open riser. Throwing further chaos into the calamity, the remotely operated vehicle near the seafloor was knocked out of commission when struck by the riser pipe during the drive off.

Confronting the emergency

As the crisis unfolded, the panelists' responses revealed some interesting insights into strategic response plan formulation. There was general agreement as to the hierarchical structuring of the Unified Command. The operator who bears the burden of responsibility typically has to take the lead in the response. Bob Waldrup, of Newfield Exploration, qualified this by adding: "The producer does have to take the lead, but with a great deal of input from the US Coast Guard."

Waldrup's remark underscored the general consensus among the panelists that the maximum amount of cooperation is required. Waldrup added, "Everybody in the industry realizes that an incident like this isn't good for anybody, and so most will help with whatever resources they can."

A major part of the discussion focused on setting up the Unified Command for the response operation. In addition to the obvious question of whom to include in the Unified Command, the question of where it should be located was debated. Speaking for the US Coast Guard, Captain Gordon Marsh emphasized the importance of locating the unified command as close to the incident as possible, and not just in Houston (or wherever corporate headquarters are).

Others pointed out additional factors that should be taken into consideration in locating the post, such as the likely location of the spill's impact, the resources available in the area of the command center, and the ability to access a reliable knowledge base of proven experts.

The panelists quickly came to a consensus on the importance of a Joint Information Center (JIC) responsible for disseminating quick and accurate information to the public regarding the incident. Though such a unit might take several hours to form, Hugh Depland of BP noted the need to speak to the media as quickly as possible. Depland also suggested that the producer involved meet with representatives from the Coast Guard and the nearby state in order to address the media jointly. "We need to say: 'Here is what we know at this point. This is what we are doing. Here is how we are operating as a joint team because we have a common problem that affects us all equally,'" said Depland. Attendees and panel participants agreed that the symposium proved to be an excellent and dynamic learning experience for all involved and that the focus on the upper strata of industry executives was productive and revealing.

Lessons learned

Structure of the Unified Command is critical. The operator bears the ultimate responsibility and therefore must take the lead on decisions made, aided by the US Coast Guard's On Scene Commander. Though oil on the water is primarily a Coast Guard issue, input from state officials and the MMS is also important.

Location of the Unified Command proved to be extremely important. Ideally, locations should be pre-determined, taking into account the proximity to the incident, access to resources in the area, and access to a pool of experienced response experts. Access to the media was deemed less important, the general wisdom being that the media will find you. Information on the incident must flow rapidly, accurately, and routinely from a centralized JIC that holds all of the key players, including state officials and Coast Guard representatives.

Participants in the NOIA function included Steve Benz, President of Marine Spill Response Corporation; Laney Chouest, Senior Vice-President of Edison Chouest Offshore; Hugh Depland, Director of Public Affairs for BP; Lawrence Dickerson, President and Chief Operating Officer of Diamond Offshore Drilling; Jim Dor

Readers interested in learning more about NOIA's Offshore Response Preparedness Symposium should contact NOIA Director of Public Affairs Tom Michels at Tel: 202-347-6900 or Email tom@noia.org.

NOIA Public Affairs Staff
Washington, D.C.

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