AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Since the Macondo blowout in the US sector of the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, offshore regulators in the oil and gas industry have been attempting to put in place new regulations, and revise old ones, in order to ensure that another accident does not occur that could come close to what has since been recorded as the world’s largest oil spill. Mexico is no exception in this activity, through the oil industry regulator created by the 2008 energy reform, the Comisión Nacional de Hidrocarburos, or CNH.

This international scramble to develop new and lasting safety regulations for deepwater activities coincides with Pemex’s planned move to deepwater and the CNH drafting brand new safety standards for this new area for Pemex. The CNH has been working since before Macondo to manage the risk of future deepwater developments, but as Javier Estrada, Commissioner at the CNH, explained to New Energy Connections in a recent interview, the level of risk cannot simply be viewed as a direct correlation with the depth of the well being drilled:

“Sometimes you can drill at 1900m, and even at this water depth the well is not so risky, either because it is a gas well, or a geological structure that is well known to the operator. There will always be some element of risk, but under these conditions it is reduced. However, some wells can be high risk even in shallow waters. Some oil wells are considered high risk at 600m water depth, and sometimes even at 60m.

“Mexico is relatively well-prepared for an offshore disaster, as it has had increased its risk awareness since the Ixtoc-1 disaster of 1979. It is not just the oil industry that has learnt to prepare itself for offshore oil spills, but many other people, including the navy and local government.

 

“Today, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether as an industry, we need to prepare for another incident the size of Macondo; whether it is possible that a spill this large could happen again.

 

“It is not surprising that we as an industry at large are asking this question; any specialist analyst of such incidents will tell you that accidents of this nature rarely happen in the same way twice. Additionally, technologies have been developed now to dampen the flow of oil, so the amount spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 will hopefully never occur again.”

One of the areas where the CNH is pushing Pemex to increase its safety standards is in the reintroduction of certification in its offshore activities, starting with its new deepwater infrastructure and activities. Certification company Germanischer Lloyd has been working in certification in Mexico for the last 15 years, but its certification work today is mainly restricted to onshore infrastructure, as some years ago Pemex decided that offshore certification was unnecessary. Now, the CNH is pushing to bring it back to all of Pemex’s offshore activities.

Eckhard Hinrichsen, Country Manager of GL Noble Denton Mexico, Germanischer Lloyd’s oil and gas focused business unit, explained in a recent interview that the company has diversified its service offering since certification activity declined in Mexico, and now also advises Pemex on safety and risk management in its planned deepwater projects, among other activities. His opinion on the extent to which the Macondo blowout affected the CNH’s strategies is that:

“Unfortunately, this is how the world works – a very big accident has to happen before things change. The regulations that the CNH have put in force were influenced a lot by this one accident, and the question remains how much a regulator should base its regulation on one accident alone.”

If Estrada’s opinions on the matter are representative of the overall view of the CNH, it seems that the regulator has realised that it should not only focus on one accident in order to plan its safety strategy, but rather look at each project on a case-by-case basis and plan in order to avoid the risks specific to that project. As Pemex progresses in its deepwater activity, we will see whether the CNH’s safety strategy has been the right one to follow.

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