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Emergency Response: The Oil Industry Spills Its Secrets

With threats from hurricanes, spills, fires and more, the oil and gas industry presents a multitude of hazards – and just as many solutions to keep workers, the environment and facilities safe.

Oil. That three-letter word invites a flood of political, ethical and environmental debates. Behind all those conversations, the oil industry is working in the background to ensure the safety of the facilities, the workers and the planet.

According to the August 2009 “Analysis of U.S. Oil Spillage” report from the American Petroleum Institute (API), 77 percent less oil is spilling now compared to the 1970s. Compared to the last decade, the marine, pipeline, refining and downstream sectors have all seen decreases in spillage that range from 91 percent less oil spilled from tankers to 19 percent less spilled from refineries. Overall, the report stated, the “total petroleum industry spillage has decreased consistently over the last 40 years” — and what has spilled is significantly less than that which occurs from natural seeps.

Spills are just one of the threats in this industry that present emergency response challenges. The industry also must establish response solutions for hurricanes, workers in remote locations, fires and more.


Some workers in the oil industry may work hundreds of miles offshore. If an emergency occurs, responders must address the difficulties of accessing the location and getting workers to safety.

“Offshore workers inherently are faced with special risks and challenges that can be much different from traditional emergency responses,” said Greg Herold, emergency preparedness manager for Marathon Oil Corp. “Working in offshore and remote locations can limit timely access during emergencies to personnel and assets as well as reduce the initial level of support by outside responders. This may place extended challenges on workers to manage their safety and an initial response until appropriate resources can arrive on scene.”

Herold added that offshore and international workers must face “the constant challenge of political unrest in certain areas of the world, as well as limited access to medical experts and facilities. Consequently, these workers and employees need to be more self sufficient on a daily basis and specially trained to understand and handle various emergencies and situations.”

Pat Peavler, director of emergency response for ConocoPhillips, said that from a geographical and environmental standpoint, offshore operations are one of the company's biggest challenges. Workers can't simply move offsite if there is an emergency as they could on an onshore facility, he explained.

“Extensive plans are developed on how do we safely transport people [from offshore facilities], typically by helicopter,” he said. That includes plans to address any possible issues that may occur in-flight or during landing.

Mike Wisby, program director at Texas Engineering Extension Service's (TEEX) Emergency Services Training Institute, explained that offshore facilities have a network designed for rescue and response. If a worker is injured 200 miles from shore, the network will help transport the worker to a nearby rig and then to shore. Some emergency situations will require additional equipment to be brought in to the location.

“If they're moving equipment offshore and they have an incident in their platform, first they are using all their items on the platform to do rescue, hazmat and firefighting,” Wisby explained. “If they need additional assistance, they may bring it via helicopter or supply boat — special, offshore boats. Everything they use out there they have to take to them.”

A specific threat that especially affects offshore workers is Mother Nature herself — in the form of hurricanes and other storms.


“When a hurricane is forecast to enter into the Gulf of Mexico, companies begin to take steps to shut down their platforms and make sure if the platform were to be destroyed, that there would be no spill from the wells that are producing from that platform,” said Andy Radford, senior policy advisor for API. “Typically, some of these platforms are nearly 200 miles from shore. Our first priority is to get people off safely.”

To accomplish that, detailed planning and coordination is necessary to get the workers out of the hurricane's path. The process starts with shutting down the platform and securing equipment so it doesn't fall off or damage the platform during the storm. Once the storm is over, companies will do flyovers to check facilities and to determine if there is any evidence of leaking pipelines. Finally, workers return to platforms, assess any damage and begin startup operations.

As the industry continually works to address the threat from hurricanes, rigs and platforms have become more sophisticated and safe through advances in design.

“A lot of the platforms that were destroyed in storms were earlier platforms designed to early designs,” Radford said. “Every storm we have, we learn about weak spots in design standards. Over time these standards have evolved …We've continually made improvements, doing some work to improve the foundation so they can better withstand [hurricanes].”

TEEX training for hurricanes focuses first on pre-planning, Wisby said. “With a hurricane, you have water, flooding and wind. You can also lose power,” he said. Therefore, important considerations include sources of backup power and which processes could be shut down and which are essential and must remain running.

Wisby also stressed the importance of being able to successfully restart operations following the storm. If a facility is not able to come back 100 percent, which happened in some cases following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, then the company may have to lay off workers, thus impacting the economy in the surrounding community.

A hurricane's impact on the oil industry has other consequences for nearby communities, as well. In the aftermath of a catastrophic storm, the demand for oil in surrounding communities means it is vital for operations to come to a smooth and timely return.

“During hurricane scenarios, it's not uncommon for there to be a need for motor fuels right away in the region, and obviously as a producer of motor fuels, we want to be there to re-establish that supply from our facilities so it's available for the local emergency response resources,” Peavler said.

According to Tony Alotto, associate division director of TEEX's Infrastructure, Training and Safety Institute, the industry is doing an “extremely good” job of responding to hurricanes. He pointed out that the industry successfully recognized potential danger, shut down plants and contained chemicals in preparation for Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“To my knowledge, we didn't have any major chemical spills or environmental incidents or injuries caused by releases in any of the petrochemical plants in the Houston ship channel,” Alotto said. “If you stop to think of the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, that's pretty amazing.”


Emergency response training is rigorous and regulated in the industry, but many companies go above and beyond those requirements. ConocoPhillips, for example, developed a program called Incident Management Assist Team (IMAT), a concept that has proven so successful that it has been adopted by the U.S. Coast Guard.

IMAT is comprised of more than 100 employees in ConocoPhillips' U.S. operations who volunteer their time to train and conduct exercises. The team, which includes workers trained in environmental response, safety response, operations and more, deploys to emergency sites to respond and bolster local resources. IMAT allow the company to pool resources to respond quickly and effectively to a specific incident.

The IMAT concept shows “how we can, as a company, bring a large amount of resources to a focused operation,” Peavler said.

The TEEX Emergency Services Training Institute also lays claim to an innovative training tool in the field: human patient simulators (HPS), computer-controlled human models developed by Meti. An HPS can breathe, bleed, dilate its pupils and perform many other human-like functions. Operators program it to produce symptoms and then track everything responders do to treat the “patient.”

For example, the HPS can be programmed to behave as a worker who has been exposed to a chemical. This person may have come into contact with the chemical and is blistering, or may have inhaled it and now has difficulty breathing. By training with the HPS, response workers can learn how to best respond to the patient's injuries.

“We have teams that are deployed all over the United States and take simulators with them,” Wisby said. “It's an outstanding training environment.”


The risk of fire in emergency situations in the oil and gas industry ever-present, and responders continually must work to prevent, contain or extinguish flames. Wisby described the scenario of a fuel spill in a parking lot. Even if it hadn't ignited, the risk is high, and responders have to be ready.

“If it's a very large spill, the odds of it not igniting are slim because of cars moving around,” Wisby said. “[Responders must] isolate the area, shut everything down and put firefighting foam on it to suppress the vapors.” Traffic also must be stopped in the vicinity, since vapors from the spill will travel downwind.

According to Wisby, TEEX covers three types of firefighting training for the oil and gas industry:

Exterior — Responders are trained in exterior operations 舒 such as a tank on fire at a tank farm 舒 to contain the fire, stabilize it, protect the facility, protect the environment, extinguish the fire and conduct property conservation.

Interior — This training addresses fires that start inside a lab or building and includes search and rescue, firefighting and ventilation.

Leadership — This component involves incident command to train personnel to manage an incident.

In addition to the heat of fire, the industry also must address hazards that come from the cold.

“The big issue for emergency response right now is arctic and cold environments,” said Marc Hodges, emergency response coordinator for API. “[This] will bring up health and safety issues with the harshness of arctic and cool environments.” API, he explained, is conducting workshops with federal and state counterparts to address the threats to workers in arctic environments.

In such frigid locations, Wisby added, “All equipment has to be designed to function in extremely cold weather. All equipment is heated or else it freezes and is useless.”

Companies also need to consider how long responders can function in those temperatures. “It's hard on the people and it's hard on the equipment,” Wisby said.


In an industry that boasts advanced and sophisticated facility designs, protective equipment, training devices and more, the component that perhaps can affect safety the most is communication.

“The main challenge throughout is communication and coordination with our federal trustees and state trustees and counterparts,” Hodges said. “If we can streamline those communications, develop those partnerships and relationships on all levels, then that would be a major bonus for our industry.”

Things looked different a few decades ago, however.

“There was so much antagonism between the responsible party and the federal [and] the state counterparts, that we realized over the last 20 years that it's better to work together consistently as a goal to expedite the response,” Hodges explained. “The antagonism will only draw the response out, and the only losers will be the environment and the economy. So the best thing to do is to develop those relationships.

“And we have,” he stressed. “I think it's a win-win for the industry, the environment and the economy.”

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