Salvation through Technology First article on Deepwater Horizon disaster June 24, 2010 Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

Salvation through Technology

First article on Deepwater Horizon disaster

June 24, 2010

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

In Psalm 124: 8, Christians and Jews proclaim, “Our Help is in the name of the Lord, who made Heaven and Earth.”  On the night of April 20, 2010, it would appear that an overly robust belief in the power of technology coupled with cost-cutting measures led to what President Barak Obama has described as the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States.

That night, when an oil gusher suddenly burst out of the Macondo oil well and ripped through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the crew knew they were in deep trouble. They knew they had few options open to them since they were drilling at a depth of 5,000 feet.  The last line of defence was an instrument called “the blind shear ram.”  This piece of technology was developed to be used when a dreaded blowout took place.  The idea was that the two blades of the shear ram would slice through the drill pipe and seal the well. Unfortunately, though he blades came tantalising close to each other, the shear ram did not work.  Engineers sent robotic submersibles to the floor of the ocean in an effort to prod the blades to inch closer to each other and seal the well. These attempts also failed. Engineers surmise that the reason the shear ram did not work was that hydraulic fluid had leaked from the machine and deprived it of its cutting power.  The failure of this piece of technology led to the death of 11 people, injuries to many more and the pollution of vast areas of the Gulf of Mexico. This has devastated sensitive  ecosystems, killed or injured vast numbers of birds and marine creatures and terminated the livelihood of tens of thousands of people, who whether they were fishermen or working in the tourist industry, depended on the ocean for their financial well-being.

The finger of blame for this disaster is being pointed at the three companies involved in the drilling: BP, Transocean and Cameron (the company that designed the blowout preventer), and the Mineral Management Service (the agency that is supposed to manager and monitor offshore drilling[1]).  Transocean accused BP, as rig operator, of having determined the blowout preventer’s configuration. BP responded by saying that it was a collaborative decision which was driven by “the contractor preference and operators requirements.”[2]

A report written in the year 2000 and seen by the New York Times investigative team concluded that “the greatest vulnerability by far on the entire blowout preventer was one of the small shuttle valves leading to the blind shear ram. If this valve jammed or leaked,” the report warned, “the ram’s blades would not budge.”[3] In order to not be completely dependent on a single blind shear ram, as was the case with the disastrous consequences on the Deepwater Horizon platform, many other exploration rigs were equipped with two blind shear rams.  Transocean, the largest offshore drilling company in the world, bought Deepwater Horizon in 2001.  Although 11out of their 14rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico are equipped with two blind shear rams, the company decided not to install a second blind shear ram on Deepwater Horizon.  As of the time of publication of this article, BP and Transocean are blaming each other for not installing the second blind shear ram.

Many people in the oil exploration industry were aware that the current exploration technology, particularly when operating in very deep parts of the ocean, is often unsafe.  In 2009, Transocean commissioned a study of the reliability of blowout preventers used by deepwater rigs.  This study, red-marked as “strictly confidential,” found that blowout preventer technology had failed in a staggering 45 percent of the cases studied.  A draft of another industry-financed study obtained  by  The New York Times concluded that exploration companies had cut corners on a variety of tests that federal agencies require  before issuing a license granting exploration.  According to the New York Times’ article, the culture of the industry is to downplay dangers, and often the industry did the minimum necessary to obtain a passing result.[4] I will return to this topic next week.

A Disaster That Could Have Been Prevented

Second article on Deepwater Horizon disaster

June 24, 2010

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

Last week I wrote about the cavalier approach to technology that 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.  Some examples include an extensive oil spill at Ixtoc off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico 31 years ago and a blowout due to failure of a blind shear ram on a rig off the coast of Texas in 1990.

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 to cut pipes and shut off the wells.  They calculated that these added pressures “demanded hundreds of thousands of additional pounds of cutting force.”[5] Whether through negligence or simply cutting corners, the studies found that seven out of the 14 blind shear rams had never been checked for proper functionality in deep water.  Only three of those seven unchecked rams 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 14 days—should now be performed only once every 35 days.   Their rationale was money.  The oil companies estimated that they would save $193 million each year if the routine checks were performed only every 35 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.  U.S. government agencies, particularly the Minerals Management Service, were aware of the vulnerability of the blowout preventers.  In fact, they helped pay for the two studies referenced above which raised doubts about the ability of the blind shear ram to work effectively in the deep ocean.[6] When BP applied for a licence to drill the Macondo well, the Minerals Management Service approved the licence without getting any guarantee from BP that the blowout preventer could shear the pipe and seal the well at a depth of 5,000 feet.  According to Captain Hung M. Nyugen, the Coast Guard’s co-chair of the disaster inquiries, the agency’s deference to the demands of the oil industry was mind boggling.  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.”[7] In 2001, the Minerals Management Service, like Deepwater Horizon, was warned not to allow deepwater rigs to operate with only a single blind shear 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.[8] 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 chose to not run a test on the quality of cement to be used in capping the well due to its cost of $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.  He said, “BP has cut corner after corner to save a million here, a few hours or days there, and now the whole Gulf Coast is paying the price.”[9] Even if the regulator had had no problems with the decisions being made, some of the personnel on the rig were concerned about the risky nature of some of the decisions.  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.

Smart Politicians Led Astray by Oil Industries’ Lobbying?

Third article on Deepwater Horizon disaster

June 25, 2010

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

Not even his most bitter enemy would call President Barack Obama a stupid person.  Nevertheless, three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon accident the President made a stupid mistake when he announced plans to open huge tracks of the ocean for oil exploration.  He was willing to consider exploration in very sensitive marine ecosystems that were considered off-limits for both Republican and Democratic presidents in the past.  Environmental groups were up in arms about the announcement and felt bitterly betrayed by the president who had made campaign promises not to allow drilling in either sensitive or dangerous marine environments.

The  administration’s claims that the president  had studied the  matter extensively and had weighed the risks before allowing drilling in deep water areas was blown out of the water by the April 20, 2010 oil gusher under Deepwater Horizon.  To Obama’s embarrassment, the administration did not question the assertions about the safety of deep water ocean drilling that were coming from the oil companies.  The well known weaknesses of the blowout preventer technology, and especially the safety issues surrounding the blind shear ram, were not investigated by the Obama administration before he gave the go-ahead for more extensive drilling.  The excuse given by Mr. Hayes, the Deputy Interior Secretary, was that the record of the companies was impeccable and the oil industry had “terrific technology.”[10] Mr. Hayes pointed the finger of blame at everyone—including environmentalists—when he said, “we were not being drawn by anybody to a potential issue with deepwater drilling or blowout preventers.”[11] He went on to attack the Minerals Management Service for not making their findings known to the administration.

Plans to deal with a large scale oil disaster were as chaotic and incompetent as the plans to prevent the spill in the first place.  BP’s spill plan for the Gulf, totalling 582 pages, was full of errors and false assumptions.  The document argues that even if the oil spill was much worse than the one that began on April 20, 2010, the oil would not reach the shore because the drilling operations were much too far from the land.  “Due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.”[12] By early June 2010, the oil had already reached the shore and was contaminating sensitive wetlands in Louisiana.  Images of pelicans immobilized by the back goo of oil that coated their bodies were broadcast around the world.  Tar balls from the spill have appeared on beaches as far away as Florida and Alabama.  As a result of this contamination, the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and people employed by the tourist industry have been destroyed.

BP’s plan to deal with the spill involved getting equipment from a company called “Marine Spill Response Corp.”  On examination, the link to the company’s website linked instead to a defunct Japanese-language webpage.  The document also claimed that in the event of a spill, BP could hire enough vessels to retrieve 20 million barrels from the sea each day. This widely optimistic prediction, unfortunately, proved to be completely untrue.  Most bizarre of all, among the people listed to be contacted in case of an emergency was Bob Lutz.  His professional address was at the University of Miami.  It turns out that Bob Lutz had left the University of Miami twenty years ago to head up a department of marine biology in Boca Raton. He died five years ago.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Obama administration has ordered a long list of changes, most of which had been called for previously in the various studies carried out in 2002 and 2004.  A culture of light-touch regulation that seemed to characterise the government’s approach to banks, corporations and oil companies is to be replaced by much more robust regulations and effective monitoring systems.   In the future, all blowout preventers must be equipped with two blind shear rams.  Instead of taking the oil industry’s word, government inspectors must now be present to verify that the tests on the blowout preventers are positive.

The Human and Ecological Costs of Oil Pollution

Fourth article on Deepwater Horizon disaster

June 26, 2010

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

In terms of human health, human livelihood and environmental devastation, the destructive impact of the oil gushing out at the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico is becoming clearer as each day passes.  Doctors and environmentalists have warned that prolonged exposure to crude oil and the chemical dispersants that are being used to break up the oil are a public health hazard.[13] In late May 2010, it was estimated that more than 3,640,000 litres (800,000 gallons) had already been sprayed on the oil slick.  Wilma Subra, a chemist who has been a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said that there was growing anecdotal evidence that many of the people exposed to tiny air particles of crude oil were becoming ill, particularly when the wind blew from the ocean.  Among the illnesses reported were headaches, nausea, respiratory problems, dizziness and burning sensations in both eyes and throat.  Long term effects of exposure could include neurological damage and cancer.[14] The health hazards were much greater for those attempting to contain the spill by deploying booms, as they were in much closer proximity to the oil and the toxic chemical dispersants. Much of the dispersant chemicals are sprayed from the air.  As a result, those working to contain the oil are being sprayed over and over again.  Tests by the EPA indicate that “the combined effect of dispersants and crude oil are even more toxic than individually.”[15]

The U.S. government has declared a “fishery disaster” in the seafood producing states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.  This will have a huge impact on these states’ economies. The seafood industry in Louisiana alone is worth $2.4 billion and employs 27,000 people.[16] Dean Blanchard, a very significant player in the shrimp business,  claims that before the disaster he bought shrimp from nearly 6,000 fishermen and that his company had about 11 percent of the shrimp market in the United States.  Blanchard reckons that a big shrimp boat could make one million dollars per day.  He laments that between April 20, when the gusher began, and mid June, he has lost 15 million dollars worth of sales.  He also points out that the tuna and oyster fishing businesses have ground to a halt.[17] The only use for the fishermen’s boats at present, according to Blanchard, is to service the oil industry and those involved in cleaning up the oil.  The fishermen’s income is a paltry $3,000 per day and less for the smaller boats. “Not a lot once divided among captain and crew.”[18] Many fear that Florida’s $60 billion tourist industry will be severely affected if oil reaches the Florida coast.[19]

The ecological damage from the leaking oil well is enormous.  By early June 2010, the oil had reached Louisiana’s Queen Bess Island pelican rookery.  This disaster could sound the death knell for the brown pelicans of Louisiana.  These creatures once reached 50,000 in number, but they were almost wiped out by the massive use of pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s.  Scientists reintroduced a breeding pair of brown pelicans in 1968.  They thrived so well that in 2009 they were taken off the red list of endangered species.  Now, because of this catastrophe, their survival is once again under serious threat.[20] The governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, confirmed that 100 miles of the state’s 400 mile coast had been impacted by the oil spill.[21]

Jacqueline Savitz, a marine scientist, points out that “oil spills are extremely harmful to marine life when they occur and often for years or even decades later.”[22] According to Savitz, the Gulf of Mexico is host to four species of endangered sea turtles and blue fin tuna, snapper and grouper.  Each of these species will be affected in different ways. For example, “turtles have to come to the surface to breathe and can be coated with oil or may swallow it.”[23] The Gulf of Mexico is the breeding ground for the valuable species called blue fin tuna. Ninety percent of these fish return to the Gulf to spawn.


[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] 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 20, 2010, downloaded on June 20, 2010.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

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

[11] Ibid.

[12] Andrew Clark and AP, “Contingency plan for dealing with oil spill was full of errors,” The Guardian, June 10, 2010, page 7.

[13] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Oil is public health risk, scientists warn as BP admits ‘catastrophe’” The Guardian, May 29th 2010, page 6 and 7.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid

[16] “Factbox: Gulf oil spill impact fisheries, wildlife, tourism,” http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6423R20100530> downloaded on June 25, 2010.

[17] Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, June 12, 2010, page 9.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Factbox: Gulf oil spill impact fisheries, wildlife, tourism,” http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6423R20100530> downloaded on June 25, 2010.

[20] Tony Allen-Mills, “Rare pelicans are Obama’s Katrina-gate.” The Sunday Times, June 6th 2010.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Steven Mufson, Washington Post, April 27, 2010. www.washingtonpost.com

[23] Ibid

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