BP: Oil spill taught cloud, workflow management lessons

BP has insisted it is learning serious lessons in cloud computing, information and workflow management, as well as improving processes and other IT systems, from five months of response efforts after its disastrous rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company is still finalising an internal report, in which it is widely reported to admit engineers misread pressure data, among other errors, resulting in the accident in April.

BP has not commented on that report, but early versions highlighted serious failures of key IT-based safety systems as playing a part in the devastating oil spill. A rig technician has subsequently claimed in federal testimony that safety systems were crashing and were switched off.

But in a separate report filed yesterday with the US drilling regulator, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, BP said it had learnt a great deal from the equipment and planning tools that were urgently deployed in response to the incident.

It said there were key lessons in collaboration and sharing information, in improving processes, and in developing and applying major new IT systems. "The urgency in containing the spill and dealing with its effects has driven innovation in technology, tools, equipment, processes and know-how."

Using cloud computing had been vital in efforts to "rapidly scale collaboration tools", BP said.

"From source to shore, existing systems were evolved and expanded and new ones developed to advance work flow, improve coordination, focus efforts and manage risks," it said. While BP said it wanted to avoid any future accidents on the same scale, it said that by using these systems now it will have the ability to respond more rapidly "with a clear direction as to personnel, resource and organisational needs".

Access to "timely and reliable information" was essential in improving decision-making and make the response safe, it said.

"The Deepwater Horizon responders have been able to take advantage of cutting-edge tools to manage information-sharing inside the Unified Command [response centre]," it said, "and externally, to improve decision-making and coordinate complex activities across response and containment, such as simultaneous operations."

In terms of innovation, BP said it was learning how to operate up to 16 robotic submarines simultaneously in order to work on and repair well heads at immense depth. It is also employing "advanced visualisation techniques" to help manage up to 19 surface and submarine vessels in a narrow radius without crashes.

These include the use of Automatic Identification Software, previously only used near shore, linked to radio transmitters on vessels. The idea is to manage simultaneous operations (SIMOPS) between the vessels and to provide real time location images. It is also using Differential Absolute vessel positioning systems from supplier Kongsberg Maritime and Sidescan sonar systems from C&C Maritime.

BP said it had learnt how to develop a "single, comprehensive and integrated view of the entire response effort" in order to enable "rapid, coordinated decision-making". It has developed a Common Operating Picture, a standardised presentation of information from over 200 disparate data types. This information is available to the response teams on the mobile web and wider internet.

The oil giant's IT team built at advanced radio system to help response across five states from Florida to Lousiana. The system was supported by a data warehouse, which was linked to an environmental response system developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Safety and process co-ordination at BP relies extensively on its in-house Operating Management System, but this was not mentioned in the report. But in July, a BP financial statement cast doubt on the ability of OMS to stop future incidents.

In the next two weeks, the company is expected to finalise its internal report into what led to the accident on the Deepwater Horizon rig, and it said those details will be shared with the US government and the public "through the appropriate channels". It is also facing US government criminal investigations, and executives will appear in the coming weeks in front of the UK's Energy and Climate Change Committee.

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Leo King

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