BP tackles Texas City failings

British Petroleum's tragic March 2005 explosion has been well-documented through the press. Read here to find out how that tragedy spurred the development of a new program addressing management issues at BP.

By Foster Finley and Karl Roberts, AlixPartners

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implementation on an ongoing basis.

The Program Office’s initiatives span everything from near-term and tactical actions to longer-term and strategic programs. Two examples of near-term activities to quickly address work force safety are: Trailer Removal, and Limiting Traffic. Relocating non-essential activities away from hazardous areas and implementing a shuttle bus system reduces parking and traffic near these areas. Many initiatives address more complex and longer-term changes. One example is Leadership Capability Development, aimed at creating improved management practices in support of safety and personal accountability. 

Another contrasting example includes Control of Work, which addresses such complex issues as project control and delegation of authority for maintenance and project work conducted throughout the refinery. All together, the totality of current and prospective initiatives presents a challenging task for the Program Office. It must respond to an environment constantly in flux by closely monitoring developments and revisiting priorities.

Major challenges

From the earliest days of the Program Office, it became apparent that it would have to overcome major barriers to success – particularly given the need to create and sustain a fast pace. To navigate through literally hundreds of ideas on how to improve safety and operations, the Program Office rigorously focused on overcoming the following key issues:

  • Refinery size and complexity – the size and intricacy of the Texas City refinery makes its operation inherently challenging. The Program Office served as a site-wide mechanism to focus energy and resources on the highest-leverage areas of impact thus improving both speed and likelihood of success for each initiative.
  • Workforce morale – it is difficult to convey in writing the emotional distress to employees resulting from the accident at Texas City. Improved communication and conspicuous progress with high-profile initiatives have rejuvenated spirits.
  • Prioritization of activities – unit managers within the refinery each had their own agendas with unique lists of actions being individually pursued. There was redundancy and competition for scarce resources. Although the frenetic efforts going on throughout the site were well meaning, a common direction was required. By quickly performing a site-wide prioritization exercise, the Program Office developed a common perspective across the refinery.
  • Internal communication – functional specialization exacerbated a sense of isolation and independence across operating units and functions that should have operated as a network. The Program Office’s on-site ‘war room’ became a gathering place to share information and solicit input from all site constituencies.
  • Emphasis on commercial performance – an old aphorism suggests, “Any strength taken to an extreme can become a liability.”  BP’s international recognition for commercial success is not accidental. However, a focus on financial optimization de-emphasized concern for safety. BP leadership made it clear in thought and deed that dramatic safety improvement was the overriding priority.

AlixPartners drew upon its expertise in crisis management and its proprietary Program Office methodology to engage the entire site leadership. Working closely with MacLean, Wilk and the members of the internal Program Office team, momentum began to build.

Texas City’s path ahead

The ISOM accident remains fresh in the minds of all those working in Texas City even while the national news turns its attention to the record-setting profits for oil producers.  Creating a safer, simpler and more reliable refinery remains the Texas City site’s overarching goal. In support of this, BP is incrementally adding skilled resources to build capabilities in its Program Office. Transparency is one of their goals. Communicating progress to site employees has become an essential function of this office. Now, since the accident, employees can monitor developments beyond their own unit or department.

The Program Office approach employed at Texas City has proven so effective that BP has replicated it globally throughout its refining operations.  Each initiative’s status from Texas City and from each of BP’s four other US refineries merge together at the US Program Office in Chicago. This information, in turn, flows to BP’s global headquarters in London along with similar feeds from other refineries around the world. Operational risks remain, however BP continues on its path to progress. The Program Office has become the instrument to making the Texas City refinery a safe place to work — site-wide coordination, better communication and clear leadership are the keys to success.

Foster Finley and Karl Roberts are Directors in AlixPartners’ Performance Improvement Practice.  Their offices are in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. Email them at ffinley@AlixPartners.com or kroberts@AlixPartners.com.

Anatomy of the accident

(Excerpted from the Fatal Accident Investigation Report issued December 9, 2005)

Fifteen people were killed and over 170 harmed as a result of a March 23, 2005 fire and explosion on the Isomerization Plant (ISOM) at the BP Products North America owned and operated refinery in Texas City, Texas.

The incident was an explosion caused by heavier-than-air hydrocarbon vapors combusting after coming into contact with an ignition source, probably a running vehicle engine. The hydrocarbons originated from liquid overflow from [a] blowdown stack (vent and receptacle for collecting liquids) following the operation of [a processing unit’s] overpressure protection system caused by overfilling and overheating of [its] contents.

The failure to institute liquid rundown (discharge flow) from the tower, and the failure to take effective emergency action, resulted in the loss of containment that preceded the explosion. These were indicative of the failure to follow many established policies and procedures. Supervisors assigned to the unit were not present to ensure conformance with established procedures, which had become custom and practice on what was viewed as a routine operation.

The severity of the accident was increased by the presence of many people congregated in and around temporary trailers which were inappropriately sited too close to the source of relief. Many of those injured could have been warned and left the area safely had warning been provided by those who were aware of events. It is unclear why those aware of the process upset failed to sound a warning. The likelihood of this incident could have been reduced by discontinuing the use of the blowdown stack for light end hydrocarbon service and installing inherently safer options when they were available.

The investigative team found no evidence of anyone consciously or intentionally taking actions or decisions that put others at risk.

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