Sea Grant team tapped for oil industry ‘spill drill’

Texas Sea Grant Specialist Chris Hale, a member of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill science outreach team, spent a day in The Woodlands, Texas, participating in an oil industry exercise where response teams gathered to work through the management of a potential oil spill scenario. Anadarko’s response exercise is an annual preparedness activity that offers the opportunity for the company to use its existing plans, processes, and procedures for managing a simulated offshore oil spill.  Along with Anadarko personnel, government representatives from Coast Guard Sector Mobile and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association participated in the exercise.  Additionally, outside expertise from contractors, including Clean Gulf Associates, The Response Group, Marine Spill Response Corporation, and Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health also joined in the exercise.

“Normally Sea Grant doesn’t have a formal role in response to an oil spill,” explained Chris, although  Sea Grant staff worked closely with impacted communities during and after the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon events as well as smaller spills around the country. Because Sea Grant’s role is usually outside of the official response process, she was not sure what to expect from the day, but looked forward to the opportunity to test her and her team’s ability to support emergency response.

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Upon arriving at the Anadarko headquarters, attendees get their first look at the mock spill and begin exchanging crucial planning information. (Chris Hale)

When Chris arrived at the Anadarko offices, she found herself in a series of interconnected rooms, each with large conference-type tables grouped together. The participants, or ‘players,’ gathered around tables or mingled while setting up computers, white boards, and flow charts preparing for the exercise brief. After being notified via Anadarko’s electronic messaging system that a simulated spill occurred, the players – employees and external representatives – assembled as members of the Incident Management Team (IMT).  The rooms had a designated area for each IMT position, such as Unified Command, Planning Section, and Public Information Officer. Upon arrival, players were assigned to an IMT position and provided color-coded vests to help them easily identify each other during the exercise as part of the IMT.

Anadarko’s Mike Drieu kicked off the proceedings by giving an overview of what attendees could expect for the day and outlining the specifics of the drill scenario. In the event of a real spill, the information flow would follow Anadarko’s response management system with roles and responsibilities designed to optimize safe and efficient operations. A displayed organization chart helped the parties involved work together.

“Open communication is one of Anadarko’s core values. We were very fortunate to have Sea Grant participate in our exercise,” Mike said. “We recognize that Sea Grant can help educate and inform the public if an event occurs, and through this exercise, we were able share knowledge between Anadarko and Sea Grant.”

The various units then sprang into action. Chris started out with the Environmental Unit, and she quickly realized that the institutional Sea Grant knowledge she had at her disposal would be a big asset to the group. After the IMT identified the simulated spill’s trajectory, she reached out to her team members based in the northern Gulf to find out about sensitive wildlife, as well as what kinds of cultural and economic interests might be there that had not yet been identified. After discovering specific local-level resources at risk, she began liaising with the Wildlife Operations Unit.

“Things quickly began to flow just by me observing and asking questions,” Chris said.

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Oil spill science specialist Chris Hale, center, explains her role within Sea Grant and how she can help support the Environmental Unit (blue vests) and others in Incident Command during the early hours of the spill role-play. (Photo provided by Anadarko)

Since this was a spill exercise, there were limitations to just how far they could go with the scenario building. They gathered information and made plans, but did not fully carry out those plans. For example, Chris brought local insight from her sources to Anadarko’s Public Information Officer (PIO). In a real event, the PIO would then publicly disseminate necessary information to stakeholders.

Toward the end of the day, the players gathered for what is known in the industry as a ‘hot wash’ session to gather lessons learned for making improvements to the plan and procedures used during the exercise. Each unit reported out on its specific mission and the decisions that resulted as they worked the drill. Plans were discussed and compared. As the teams provided their lesson learned for what went well or recommendations for improvements, data entry technicians entered the information to analyze later for implementing improvements. After the exercise ended, Anadarko would continue to mull over its outcomes to further tweak company response plans.

“At the end of the day, I had a much better understanding of the response process and how different groups work together in a high pressure situation,” said Chris. “I also had a much clearer idea of what Sea Grant’s role might be in an incident.”

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