WASHINGTON – As offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere boomed, a 2003 report warned that the industry wasn’t taking time to find and fix the problems that commonly plagued blowout preventers.
Preventers are the fail-safe mechanisms designed to stop oil spills such as the one now threatening the Gulf Coast.
The report, delivered at an industry conference seven years ago and uncovered by the office of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was co-authored by the then-director of technology development for Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon rig that caught fire on April 20 and sank two days later.
Though the accident’s cause remains unknown, an apparent malfunction of the blowout preventer, which sat on the wellhead beneath 5,000 feet of water, has allowed as much as 210,000 gallons of oil a day to escape, creating a massive spill.
“There is clear evidence that the oil industry has been well aware for years of the risk that blowout preventers on offshore rigs could fail,” said Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee’s oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee.
However, Earl Shanks, the Transocean executive who co-authored the report, said in a telephone interview with McClatchy Newspapers that there have been improvements over the past seven years.
“In my opinion, the equipment has gotten better,” Shanks said.
Cantwell isn’t so sure.
A 2008 report authored by officials of BP America and Transocean and published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers raised new questions about whether the blowout preventers on deepwater wells such as the one the Deepwater Horizon was drilling could have a new problem.
Blowout preventers, or BOPs, which weigh 500,000 pounds and are roughly as tall as a five-story building, activate rams that punch a hole in the pipeline connecting the well to the surface, and then block the pipeline. The rams, the report said, could have “difficulty shearing today’s high-strength, high-toughness drillpipe” used in deepwater wells.
The 10-page report, delivered at the 2003 Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, suggests that the industry was so focused on drilling that it was willing to pay higher maintenance costs to keep rigs operating and avoid downtime rather than address some of the fundamental problems with the BOPs.
“Floating drilling rig downtime due to poor BOP reliability is a common and very costly issue confronting all offshore drilling contractors,” the report said, adding that every major disruption could cost $1 million.
The report said the reliability issues were directly related to the fact that drilling companies didn’t have detailed design and functional specifications to give companies that manufactured BOPS.
The preventers were being rushed into the field with limited testing, and if one malfunctioned, the pressure to keep drilling meant it was fixed with little time spent trying to figure out what had caused the malfunction.
“Because of the pressure on getting the equipment back to work, root cause analysis of the failures is generally not performed,” the report said. “In many operations, high maintenance is accepted as a necessary evil to prevent downtime.”
Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008