Platform A, MH370: Tale of two disasters

In 1970, I visited some friends in Santa Barbara, Calif., who at the time were students at U.C. Santa Barbara. A year earlier, an offshore oil rig known as Platform A, located a few miles off the coast from the UCSB campus, experienced a “blowout” that sent an estimated 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the pristine Pacific Ocean and straight toward the beach. As my friends and I were walking to the beach, they warned me to take off my shoes so I wouldn’t ruin them. Sure enough, the beach was still pockmarked with countless piles of sandy, brown, oily goo, remnants of the largest oil spill ever off the California coast. (My shoes survived, but it took a well-practiced cleaning ritual to get the goo off my feet.)

Today, 45 years after the spill, Platform A and 26 other oil and gas platforms off the Southern California coast face decommissioning as they reach the end of their productive lives and operational leases. So what to do with the massive steel structures, many of which extend hundreds of feet down to the ocean floor?

That’s the question a multidisciplinary team faced when hired by the California Ocean Science Trust to analyze and compare potential solutions. (Since this was California, there was no shortage of ideas, including converting the rigs into wind farms, aquaculture sites or even offshore hotels.) Led by Brock Bernstein, the team included a platform engineer, marine biologists, economists, legal experts and two decision analysts, Surya Swamy and Max Henrion.

In his article “Rigs to reefs: From controversy to consensus” (page 22), Henrion, CEO of Lumina Decision Systems, recalls a fascinating story of decision-making that led a diverse group of stakeholders – from oil industry execs to environmental advocates – to not only a win-win option for all concerned, but also a piece of legislation passed nearly unanimously by the California legislature that made it all possible.

The Southern California oil spill, described by Henrion as the “Deepwater Horizon of its day,” garnered worldwide media attention and, as Henrion notes, is credited with “jump-starting the modern U.S. environmental movement.”

Arnold Barnett, an MIT professor and widely recognized expert in aviation safety, addresses another disaster that attracted international attention and concerns in his article, “The loss of Malaysia Flight 370” (page 16). Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which veered off its scheduled course and vanished somewhere in the vast Indian Ocean several hundred miles off the coast of Australia, remains as of this writing one of the great mysteries in aviation history.

Barnett acknowledges that “no one knows what happened to Flight 370,” yet several questions raised by the event can be answered, including: “Did the crash of MH 370 herald a year that signified a decline in aviation safety?” and “If MH 370 was deliberately destroyed, does that circumstance suggest an upsurge in criminal/terrorist attacks on aviation?” and “Does MH 370 (and MH 17) tell us anything new about the safety of Malaysian airlines?”

Barnett concludes with the question on everyone’s mind: “Will we ever learn what happened to MH 370?”

His answer might surprise you.

— Peter Horner,