HOUSTON—Deepwater exploration might have more in common with mankind’s voyage into “the final frontier” than one might first imagine, according to David Kaplan, safety and mission assurance partnership development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

For example, both NASA and the oil and gas industry, specifically offshore, have experience dealing with complex facilities operated in hostile and isolated environments, Kaplan said during an OTC breakfast on May 4.

“Frankly, where a single mistake can have extreme consequences,” he added. Unfortunately, both groups are not strangers to tragedy.

From 2003 to 2010, the U.S. oil and gas industry, both onshore and offshore, had a collective fatality rate seven times higher than for all U.S. workers, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in 2013.

The industry’s volatility was most widely felt during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 where an explosion on the rig caused by a blowout killed 11 crewmen.

For NASA, Kaplan said a weakening in safety culture eventually resulted in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, when the shuttle disintegrated as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.

David Kaplan, NASA, OTC, 2016, Offshore, oil, gas, technology, conference

Following the Columbia disaster, NASA aimed to never experience another tragedy of a similar magnitude again. The agency ended up adopting the probabilistic risk assessment (PRA) technique after a vigorous process examining its safety culture.

“I don’t want to know when something bad happened,” Kaplan said. “I want to know when my eye has been taken off the proverbial ball.”

First developed by the nuclear industry, the PRA is used to quantitatively model risk.

NASA has since used the technique in the modeling of the Space Shuttle Program, which concluded in 2011. It’s also presently being used for the International Space Station and Orion deep space capsule programs.

“[The PRA’s] critical focus is it does account for human error. We can access the reliability of humans in the overall flow and also accounted costs,” he said.

The oil and gas industry may soon follow in NASA’s footsteps following a five-year agreement in March between the agency and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) to examine risk offshore.

“NASA and BSEE are exploring the possibility that PRA may provide insight to the operator that will allow them to mitigate risks in a meaningful way,” Kaplan said.

The agreement between the two government agencies allows BSEE to capitalize on the best risk management approaches from the aeronautics industry to inform stakeholders and further strengthen worker and environmental safety protections on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Kaplan proposed the scenario where an operator of an offshore rig had three different pumps from the same lot and same vendor but used on three different systems under different managers on the rig.

“When one fails, you immediately have to ask the question, ‘Could there be a systematic problem?’” he said.

The use of the other systems in this scenario would immediately put the rig at risk. Adoption of the PRA technique would call the risk to each manager’s attention, he said.

“A system manager can understand their system incredibly well, but it’s really impossible to fully understand the complete integrated set of operations occurring on a complex facility,” he said. “Trust me; our astronauts are very smart people. There is no way without mission control that they would be able to stay onboard the space station.”

Under the agreement, NASA will assist BSEE in achieving three primary objectives:

  • Further develop BSEE’s risk management capability through the use of NASA’s PRA technique;
  • Evaluate, design and test technologies and hardware, including emerging technologies and best available and safest technologies; and
  • Assess failures and near miss occurrences using the resources and expertise of NASA’s accredited failure analysis laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA also entered into an agreement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: APC) about a year ago to evaluate the PRA on a BOP. The partnership’s results will be made available to the American Petroleum Institute and BSEE, Kaplan said.

“Anadarko brings expertise with BOP—I would know nothing about a BOP, I know a lot of about shuttle engines but not BOPs—to sit side-by-side with NASA PRA experts,” he said.

Emily Moser can be reached at emoser@hartenergy.com.