Another catastrophe similar to BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and spewed 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, could very well happen because of a major flaw in offshore oil-rig technology that federal regulators are just learning about now, four years after the disaster.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board revealed yesterday in a new, major report that the type of blowout preventer that failed on the BP rig on April 20, 2010 — and which is still used on hundreds of offshore sites today — is prone to buckling and to failure in an emergency.
“Although there have been regulatory improvements since the accident, the effective management of safety critical elements has yet to be established,” Cheryl MacKenzie, the chief investigator for the federal safety board, said yesterday. “This results in potential safety gaps in U.S. offshore operations and leaves open the possibility of another similar catastrophic accident.”
The importance of this finding cannot be stressed enough. Little has been done to curb the boom in offshore drilling since 2010 despite the unprecedented scale of the BP disaster, and in fact the British oil giant recently won 24 bids to resume offshore drilling in the Gulf despite its recklessness four years ago. Now, we learn that the government has allowed off-shore drilling to proceed at full force without even knowing what actually caused the 2010 spill.
Here’s a good summary of what the chemical safety board said it has now learned:
The report found that the blowout preventer failed to seal the well because drill pipe buckling likely occurred during the first minutes of the blowout. Other investigations have concluded that the drill pipe buckled days later after the blowout was well underway, the CSB said.
The CSB calls the buckling mechanism “effective compression,” which occurs when there is a large pressure difference between the inside and outside of a pipe. The buckling bent the drill pipe outside the effective reach of the blowout preventer’s last-resort safety device, the blind shear ram, the CSB said.
Under certain conditions, “the ‘effective compression’ phenomenon could compromise the proper functioning of other blowout preventers still deployed around the world at offshore wells,” the CSB said in a statement.
The alarming thing, according to what the safety board report found, is that this type of buckling can occur when the rig appears to be operating safely, fooling operators into believing that the blowout preventer is in proper position to be deployed when it actually is not. There are steps that engineers can take to prevent and watch for this buckling, but industry officials seemingly weren’t even aware of the problem until today.
Why did it take four years — during a period when drilling off the American coastline is expanding — for regulators to learn of this problem? If you’ve been paying attention since the early days of the spill back in 2010, it won’t surprise you to learn that both BP and even other federal agencies made it hard for the chemical board to get what it needed:
The Chemical Safety Board is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial and chemical accidents. It examined the reasons for the deadly explosion that took place at BP’s Texas City refinery in 2007, and it is currently investigating the West Virginia storage tank leak that contaminated water supplies for thousands of people.
But it is a small agency, and it hired outside consultants to assist in the Deepwater Horizon case. The board has struggled against other agencies during the BP oil spill investigation to gain access to damaged equipment, and it went to federal court to get its subpoenas enforced. Transocean has argued that offshore incidents were outside the board’s jurisdiction.
Already, the industry PR folks are trying to spin this report — one told the Washington Post the usual nonsense that the report is flawed and that great strides in safety have been made since 2010, although evidence of that seems minimal. I find this new development alarming; it should cause the government to consider a moratorium on all U.S. offshore drilling until it can be determined that rig operators understand this problem and have a handle on how to deal with it.
That may sound like an extreme measure — but not when you consider the risk of another spill, and the massive blow to marine life and on human health from which the Gulf is still reeling four years after Deepwater Horizon. We ground expensive jetliners whenever there’s a safety defect — and its time to ground our “fleet” of offshore oil rigs until the safety of the American people can be guaranteed.
You can read the report from the Chemical Safety Board and an executive summary here: http://www.csb.gov/mobile/csb-draft-report-finds-deepwater-horizon-blowout-preventer-failed-due-to-unrecognized-pipe-buckling-phenomenon-during-emergency-well-control-efforts-on-april-20-2010-leading-to-environmental-disaster-in-gulf-of-mexico/
Check out more information about the CSB report and what it means: http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2014/06/05/why-deepwater-horizon-could-happen-again.html
The Washington Post on how BP and federal agencies tried to obstruct the probe: http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/new-report-on-bp-oil-spill-points-to-faulty-blowout-preventer-procedures/2014/06/05/eb3a6fce-ecc4-11e3-93d2-edd4be1f5d9e_story.html
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