The recent implosion of the Titan, a sub-sea submersible used for taking elite, high-paying tourists to see the wreck of the Titanic, brought the safety protocols of both vessels into focus. There were no statutory requirements for regulating the Titan and neither were there any when the Titanic sank in 1912! As a reactive measure, the maritime community came up with the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention soon after the sinking of the Titanic. Ironically, after the Titan submersible imploded, we have come to realize there are no requirements covering this vessel. Perhaps with time, the involved counties will react.
The question is, why was nothing done proactively? Tourists go up in hot air balloons all the time. Is there any statutory requirement that these tourist companies must meet? Is there even a requirement to have a management system in place so that these companies work systematically, appreciate the risks in the context of the organization, and plan their operations keeping risks in mind? It is true that entrepreneurs do not like regulations and consider requirements a hindrance in a free business environment. And yet the Titanic, which was declared to be “unsinkable,” did, in fact, sink! In the United States, the domestic towing vessel industry functioned without statutory requirements until recently. The industry avoided regulation, but tragedies occurred, and now the industry is regulated under the U.S. regulatory framework. A process-based management system is the best systematic structure to produce conforming products and services, ensure continual improvement, and implement the statutory requirements if available.
The intent of this article is to proactively start a discussion on the need for regulating sub-sea infrastructure to reduce its affect on the marine transportation system. The phrase “sub-sea infrastructure” refers to equipment and technology placed on or anchored to the ocean floor. This infrastructure may include, but is not limited to, cables for telecommunication, cables for power transmission, pipelines for transmission of fluids, and other stationary equipment for scientific research.
The growth of sub-sea infrastructure is a global phenomenon. As an example, is in the interest of all nations, and particularly here in United States, to promote wind farms, which are a source of renewable energy. When these wind farms are placed in selected geographical locations along the continental shelf, they need sub-sea cables. But are there any laws controlling the systematic development of the industry to enable an effective marine transportation system and its protection of maritime community interests and environmental interests? Is there a central agency responsible for this coordination to allow for a balanced approach to risks? The amount of cabling piling up needs management and oversight.
Sub-sea infrastructure, the definition of the problem
Numerous industries have a stake in sub-sea infrastructure. Examples include oil and gas, telecommunications, fishing, scientific research, and perhaps military/defense applications such as sonar and other arrays and obstacles. This infrastructure is a requirement, but it also faces various challenges including those that can lead to accidents, environmental damage, and possible breaches in national security. All these bring out very significant concerns related to sub-sea infrastructure and the lack of comprehensive and globally accepted standards, requirements, obligations, and assurance mechanisms. It is not that organizations such as the United States Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal and state agencies do not look at these issues.
Nevertheless, it remains a concern that there is no single agency or overarching requirement to provide a framework to the industry on harmonized implementation of requirements. This lack of harmonization can mean inconsistencies in design, installation, and maintenance practices which may not address risks uniformly. This can generate consequential risks, leading to increased accidents, mechanical failures, and costs to the industry and the nation.
Recent tragedies and accidents
Recent tragedies and accidents involving sub-sea infrastructure have been limited, and yet must not lead to complacency by the agencies involved. The few that have occurred indicate the challenges and trends pointing to the need for proactive requirements. The recent tragedies include:
- Deepwater Horizon. The potential consequences and challenges inherent in deep-water oil drilling were brought out by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010. The oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico caused a massive oil spill and resulted in the loss of 11 lives. Although not technically a sub-sea incident, it highlighted a series of failures in design, maintenance, and company oversight—all factors pointing to the importance of robust safety standards and requirements, and the implementation thereof. The Deepwater Horizon incident was not directly related to sub-sea infrastructure; however, it heightened the risks associated with offshore oil and gas production and the potential for catastrophic environmental damage.
- Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2. Occurring in September 2022, the damage to these gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea highlighted concerns around sub-sea infrastructure. These pipelines transport natural gas from Russia to Europe; in this incident, they sustained multiple leaks. The exact cause of the damage is unclear, though deliberate sabotage was suspected and is still under investigation. Regardless of the ultimate findings, this incident exposed the vulnerabilities of sub-sea infrastructure to sabotage, and the potential for significant environmental and economic consequences are real. Intentional attacks to the sub-sea infrastructure have the potential for widespread disruption of energy supplies. Apart from the Nord Stream, there have been other sub-sea incidents affecting the gas and oil industry. In 2021 a fire broke out on a sub-sea production control umbilical off the coast of Brazil, causing significant damage to the underwater equipment and resulting in a major oil spill.
- English Channel Internet Disruption. In 2021, a ship dragging its anchor on the seabed in the English Channel cut the three main internet cables to the Channel Islands. Although this only resulted in slower broadband speeds in this instance, there remains the possibility that it could have resulted in a complete outage.
These incidents represent leading indicators of a tragedy in the making should proactive action not be taken. The critical importance of safety for sub-sea infrastructure underscores the need for a more comprehensive and rigorous approach to standards and assurance. Industry stakeholders together with regulatory bodies within the United States and global organizations such as the International Maritime Organization must work together to establish a harmonized set of safety standards, implement robust assurance mechanisms, and foster a culture of safety throughout the sub-sea industry.
The increasing reliance on sub-sea infrastructure for various industries (including wind farms) necessitates a proactive approach to safety and risk management. There is definitely a need to invest in research and development to enhance the resilience and monitoring capability of sub-sea infrastructure. The various companies in the sub-sea industry are holding their proprietary information close to the vest. This is understandable. However, these organizations are in competition with totalitarian governments, in which control of business practices is the exclusive dominion of the state. It is necessary to enhance transparency and information-sharing among industry stakeholders to facilitate better risk assessment and incident prevention.
Promoting a culture of safety that prioritizes risk identification, risk mitigation, and continual improvement is essential. There is no common ISO standard for sub-sea management systems. Of course, ISO 9001 is interpretable and can be used as the basis for now. Environmental protection is a challenge for a developing industry, and as such, even greater urgency is needed for statutory requirements encompassing all aspects of stakeholder interests, the marine industry in general, and the protection of the environment for generations to come.
Marine transportation remains the most important way for goods to be shipped across the world, as approximately 80 percent of the world’s goods are transported by ships. Vessels need a place to anchor in normal operating conditions as also in emergencies. A crowded seabed in harbors makes this a challenge for the entire maritime industry.
Without adequate and effective regulatory oversight, it may be too late to take action once cables and other sub-sea equipment have already been laid. Further, multiple agencies regulating the same aspects of the industry can potentially lead to bureaucratic delays. There is therefore an urgent need to create a single statutory body to regulate the sub-sea infrastructure industry, which will greatly benefit all parties invested in the maritime transportation system.