After the 1988 Piper Alpha rig disaster in the North Sea, where 167 people died, Britain separated safety oversight from other regulatory functions. Instead of a rules-based approach, not unlike that of the US today, it adopted a "case based" system that describes objectives – then challenges companies to show they can meet them.
Needed, too, is better testing of critical BOP equipment, like blind-shear rams. "What we really need are specific guidelines for how these things must be tested – and then have the results go into a computer accessible by everyone," says Benton Baugh, a BOP expert.
Yet all the testing and offshore police in the world can't overcome human error. Robert Bea, a safety engineering expert at the University of California, Berkeley, says the need is to focus on how people react and interact with complex safety systems when the siren goes off.
"We've neglected the human things," he says, "the designers, the people that operate [BOPs], the people that maintain them, the people who have to handle rapidly developing crises."
2 design a better drill rig
As oil discoveries in deeper waters beckon, giant new rigs will plunge drill bits two miles below the sea surface and five more miles into the earth – the equivalent of 29 Empire State Buildings. But such ultradeep drilling means ultrahigh pressures. At any time a bit could hit a pocket of pressurized gas that bursts to the surface and explodes. Capping a blowout 10,000 feet down would make the Deepwater Horizon problem look like a do-it-yourself caulk job.