A disaster which could have been prevented. Fr. Seán McDonagh, (June 24, 2010) (2nd Article on Deepwater Horizon)

Last week I wrote about the cavalier approach to technology which led to the loss of human life and destruction of the environment in the wake of the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  Those in the oil exploration industry were well aware that blowout prevention technologies did not work on a number of previous occasions.  These include an extensive oil spill at Ixtoc off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico 31 years ago. In 1990, a blind shear ram failed to prevent a blowout on a rig off the coast of Texas.

A company called West Engineering Services of Brookshire, with its head office in Texas, is recognized as a world-authority on blowout preventers.  It conducted two studies, one in 2002 and a second in 2004.  These studies revealed more basic problems with blowout preventers.  Firstly, modern drill pipes are twice as thick as older pipes.  Secondly, drilling at deeper locations in the oceans where the water is extremely cold makes it more difficult cut pipes and shut off the well.  They calculated that these added pressures “demanded hundreds of thousands of additional pounds of cutting force.”[1] Whether through negligence, or simply cutting corners, the studies found that seven out of the fourteen blind shear rams had never been checked to see if they can function properly in deep water.  Only three of those operated successfully in the deep ocean.  Despite this dismal record, the oil companies were lobbying that routine checks on the blowout prevention technology which were supposed to be carried out every fourteen days should now only be preformed every thirty five day.   Their rationale was money.  The oil companies estimated that they would save $193 million each year if the routine checks were only performed every thirty five days.

The blame for the blowout at the Deepwater Horizon rig should not fall exclusively on the shoulders of BP or Transocean, even though they knew about the limitations  of the blowout preventers. The U.S. government agencies, especially the Minerals Management Service were aware of the vulnerability of the blowout preventers.  In fact, they helped pay for the two studies quoted above which raised doubts about the ability of the blind shear ram to work effectively in the deep ocean. [2] When BP applied for a licence to drill the Macondo well, the Minerals Management Service approved the licence without getting any guarantee from the company that the blowout preventer could shear the pipe and seal the well at a depth of 5,000 feet.  The agency’s deference to the demands of the oil industry was mind boggling according to Captain Hung M.Nyugen, who co-chaired the Coast Guard enquiry into the disaster.  On hearing testimony from officials of the Minerals Management Service he stated that, the  blowout preventer technology is “designed to industry standards, manufactured by industry, installed by industry, with no government witnessing oversight of the construction.”[3] The Minerals Management Service was warned in 2001, just as Deepwater Horizon was been fitted out, not to allow deepwater rigs to operate with only a single blind sear ram.  In 2005, when Deepwater Horizon was thoroughly checked, several problems were found with the blowout preventer.

The Macondo well is one of the largest oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Technicians working on the rig complained that they had to deal with faulty drilling pipes and broken tools.[4] Specific jobs fell weeks behind schedule and this cost BP dearly.  In April 2010, when BP set about capping the well for later production, the company did not bother to run a test on the quality of cement to be used in capping the well because it cost $128,000. At the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings in mid-June, the  chairman ,Representative Henry A Waxman said that decisions taken to spare BP time and money raised the risk of catastrophe, “BP has cut corner after corner to save $1 million here, a few hours or days there, and now the whole Gulf Coast is paying the price.” [5] If the regulator saw no problem with the decisions being taken some of the personnel on the rig were concerned about the risky nature of the decisions been taken. The chief mechanic on the rig, Douglas Brown recalled an acrimonious exchange between a BP official and a senior Transocean manager two hours before the explosion. More next week.


[1] www.nytimes.com, David Barstow, Laura Dodd, James Glanz, Stephanie Saul and Ian Urbina, “Failure of Rig’s Last Line of Defense Tied Myriad Factors,” New York Times, June 20th 2010, downloaded on June 20th 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

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