That Missing Ounce Of Prevention

Chris Rovzar at New York Magazine:

The Times takes an exhaustive look this week at the so-called “blowout preventers,” complex devices that wrap oil pipes deep underwater, near where they emerge from the earth, and are designed to shut off leaks in the event of a catastrophe. Specifically, the paper looked at the effectiveness of “blind shears,” contraptions that cut through pipes in times of emergency and seal them off. The shears have to create thousands of pounds of pressure to get through the tough metals of the pipes, and have to create a perfect seal. The devices are incredibly complex and contain many parts that can easily fail and render the enter machine ineffective. It’s not that the oil companies and the government don’t know about these risks — the devices have been tested many times over the past ten years — the problem is that the known problems weren’t compensated for, and in the case of the Deepwater Horizon well currently gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a commonly installed backup blind shear wasn’t even built.

These blind shears are “remarkably vulnerable,” says the Times, and at 5,000 feet underwater, incredibly complicated to fix. As the oil spill worsened, before the Deepwater rig exploded, engineers frantically tried to engage, and then fix, their own failed shear. There would have been a second shear had the Minerals Management Service acted on one of their own studies, which revealed that two of the devices vastly increased the likelihood of avoiding a major spill. Studies in 2002 and 2004 revealed the following:

When the team examined the performance of blind shear rams in blowout preventers on 14 new rigs, it found that seven had never been checked to see if their shear rams would work in deep water. Of the remaining seven, only three “were found able to shear pipe at their maximum rated water depths.”
The Times study is full of a lot of very obscure facts and technology, and while it casts some blame on the “Obama administration,” it’s impossible to imagine that the president himself, or even anyone in the White House, knew anything about these subjects before April 20. Not that this matters when, as the evidence increasingly suggests, the government has systematically failed to protect us and the environment from exactly the disaster that unfolded so quickly this spring.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig had a man-made cause. We have an eyewitness survivor of the blast now willing to say that the blowout preventer was leaking for weeks before the explosion, and BP and Transocean failed to repair the valve in response, merely shutting it off instead. If they actually repaired it, that would shut down production. The last line of defense, the “blind shear ram,” designed to slice the pipe and seal the well in the event of a disaster, malfunctioned, and BP never had to show proof that the technique would actually work. In fact, the Deepwater Horizon, unlike every new BP well, had only one blind shear ram; two are now standard.

A legitimate Minerals Management Service could have known about the leaking blowout preventer before the blast. It could have acted on the inherent problems with the blind shear ram and the oil industry’s failsafe measures in general (blowout preventers have a 45% failure rate, according to a confidential Transocean report). But we didn’t have a legitimate MMS to deal with this disaster. We have 62 regulators dealing with over 4,000 offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chris Morran at The Consumerist:

According to a memo released by Congressman Ed Markey, BP put a top level estimate on the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf at around 100,000 barrels a day. That’s significantly higher than even the current U.S. Government guess of around 60,000 barrels/day.

A rep for BP tried to downplay the numbers in the document by saying that this was a worst-case scenario estimate, which would apply only if the blowout preventer was completely removed: “Since there are no plans to remove the blowout preventer, the number is irrelevant.”

The rep maintains that, regardless of the amount of crude being pumped into the Gulf waters, the company’s position has always been that it “would deal with whatever volume of oil was being spilled.”

Speaking of the blowout preventer, a worker on the Deepwater Horizon, the offshore oil rig whose collapse killed 11 and kicked off the worst spill in U.S. history, says that he and his employers attempted to notify BP of problems with the blowout preventer weeks before the April 20 disaster.

The blowout preventer has two control pods that work to operate the device that should have stopped the massive amount of leakage into the Gulf. But, speaking to the BBC over the weekend, the worker says that BP ignored warnings from those aboard the rig.

“We saw a leak on the pod, so by seeing the leak we informed the company men,” he recalled. “They have a control room where they could turn off that pod and turn on the other one, so that they don’t have to stop production.”

Marian Wang at ProPublica:

Regulatory reliance on industry, recruitment troubles, and lax enforcement have long plagued the Minerals Management Service, but according to congressional testimony given by the Interior Department’s inspector general, Mary Kendall, the agency’s problems are bigger than that [1]. [PDF]

“The greatest challenge in reorganizing and reforming MMS lies with the culture—both within MMS and within industry,” Kendall told the House Natural Resources Committee in little-noticed comments last Thursday.

Regulations are lacking and are “heavily reliant on industry to document and accurately report on operations, production and royalties,” Kendall said.

A recent example of that? BP’s letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in which the company said that it was “not aware of any MMS practice [2]” [PDF] to demand compliance with a law requiring oil companies to provide proof that blowout preventers’ shear rams could function effectively. (Shear rams are used to stop a blowout by closing off a pipe by cutting through it. But as a great investigation in this morning’s New York Times shows, not only did the shear rams fail on the Deepwater Horizon, but they’ve frequently failed in other blowouts too [3]. The Times cites an industry study showing that in the case of deep-water wells, the shear rams failed nearly half the time. What’s more, as the Times notes, MMS failed too: The agency did not require testing on the shear ram or other key safety equipment.)

The training programs for MMS inspectors are “considerably out of date,” and “have not kept pace with the technological advancements occurring within the industry,” Kendall said.

In the Gulf of Mexico region, there may not be enough inspectors to begin with. According to Kendall, MMS has about 60 inspectors to cover 4,000 facilities, while the Pacific Coast has 10 for 23 facilities. (It’s worth mentioning too, that the frequency of inspections of key safety equipment such as blowout preventers was halved more than a decade ago [4].)

Edward Tenner at The Atlantic:

Remember the Ixtoc I well blowout of 1979, that released about 3.3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over more than ten months? Not many North Americans do — because they were less environmentally conscious, because it occurred in Mexican rather than U.S. waters, because Iran’s Islamic revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan filled the airwaves and the headlines, or even because many of today’s adults were too young to notice, or even unborn.

And that’s one of the big problems behind the BP oil spill. In 1977 the University College London civil engineers Paul Sibley and Alistair Walker published a paper suggesting that major bridge collapses occurred at approximately 30-year intervals as new designs succeeded old as a result of the failure’s lessons, new generations of designers became increasingly confident in the safety record of their innovations, until they finally pushed them over a tipping point, beginning a new cycle. The civil engineering professor and historian of technology Henry Petroski has developed this idea, which last came to the fore in the Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007, as discussed here and here. My graduate teacher William H. McNeill coined a mordant phrase for such recurrence of disasters partially as a result of confidence in reforms, the Law of the Conservation of Catastrophe.

Bradford Plumer at The New Republic:

“The last time you saw a spill of this magnitude in the Gulf, it was off the coast of Mexico in 1979. If something doesn’t happen since 1979, you begin to take your eye off of that thing.” That was what a senior administration official recently told a McClatchy reporter, in regards to the Gulf gusher. As it turns out, this is a pattern with engineering accidents, be they bridge collapses or oil-platform blowouts. Disaster strikes, a flurry of safety improvements follow, but then engineers get over-confident in their new innovations, and eventually disaster strikes again.

[…]

As long as we stay addicted to crude, it’s hard to see us escaping this cycle—especially since we’re using up all the “easy” oil, and companies need to keep foraging deeper and deeper into the ocean, continually pushing the boundaries of safety technology.

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