Deepwater Horizon film is a grim lesson on safety for Arabian Gulf rigs

Imagine the Egyptian-American heart-throb actor Rami Malek playing the earnest engineer on a doomed oil rig, as a sinister Ghassan Massoud, the company man, tells him to ignore safety concerns. Deepwater Horizon, Hollywood’s take on BP’s 2010 Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, is a gripping reminder of the industry’s risks. As it shows in cinemas here, Middle East oil executives will want to avoid ending up on the big screen themselves.

The film itself stars Mark Wahlberg as the decent blue-collar technician Mike Williams, Kurt Russell as the respected veteran rig boss “Mr Jimmy” Harrell, and John Malkovich as the snarling BP representative Don Vidrine.

We should not look to Hollywood for nuance or scrupulous adherence to facts, particularly when it comes to depicting big oil companies. “Deepwater Horizon” makes some necessary simplifications. It shows moments of heroism, some real, some invented – like Mr Williams’ rescue of the navigator Andrea Fleytas, as Ed Crooks’ excellent review in the Financial Times notes.

Most gallingly for a BP audience, all the blame is pinned on them, with Malkovich the ideal actor to menace the Transocean staff with the size of his company and the budget overruns their delays are causing. In reality, the official US government report found that Transocean and Halliburton (which does not feature in the film) were also partly responsible.

But Deepwater Horizon also does a decent job of explaining the accident to a non-technical audience, and conveying something of how the offshore drilling industry is organised, with an oil company such as BP hiring a rig from a drilling contractor, in this case Transocean.

It conveys the visceral power and terror of the explosion and fire, the worst fear for every oil worker in the field. And – as the crew ignore anomalous pressure readings, turn off over-sensitive fire alarms, and complain about but don’t fix malfunctioning phones – it shows the truth behind almost every serious industry accident. Such disasters are almost never the fault of villains, but arise from a long chain of minor errors, breaches of safe procedures that become routine and ignoring warning signs.

Other than in the Eastern Mediterranean, there is little deepwater drilling in the Middle East, and a disaster like Macondo might seem unlikely. But the region’s oil industry has suffered serious accidents in the past.

In 1995, a well blew out spectacularly in Shell’s El Isba field in Syria. Five men died in the battle to contain the fire, whose flames could be seen from airplanes over the Mediterranean more than 400 kilometres away.

A leaking pipeline led to a massive conflagration that destroyed a gathering centre at Kuwait’s Raudhatain oilfield, with four workers dead and 600,000 barrels of oil production knocked out. And in 2004, a massive explosion destroyed three of the six processing units at Algeria’s Skikda liquefied natural gas plant and killed 29 people.

Most recently, Iran has suffered a worrying series of accidents to petrochemical plants and pipelines. While raising suspicions of cyber-attacks, these incidents seem more likely to be because of facilities built and operated shoddily under the pressure of sanctions.

A blowout of high-pressure sour gas, containing deadly hydrogen sulphide, could cause mass casualties if it occurred near a populated area. The Arabian Gulf, only a sixth the size of the Gulf of Mexico, has suffered numerous oil spills, mainly from tankers. A serious leak would devastate delicate coral reefs and dugong breeding grounds, and could threaten the intakes of vital water desalination plants.

Even taking the film’s specifics with a pinch of popcorn, the Middle East’s petroleum leaders can benefit from its overall message. Despite tight budgets, safety must come first; even minor breaches cannot be tolerated, and those who raise concerns have to be listened to. The best tribute to the eleven men who died is to ensure nothing like “Deepwater Horizon” happens here.

Robin Mills is the chief executive of Qamar Energy and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis

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