In a riveting story, The New York Times reports that the so-called last resort for oil rigs, blowout preventers, may not be the failsafe that the oil companies pretend they are. A 2000 report found that a jam or leak in a single valve could shut down the entire preventer, and a 2001 study by Transocean, which operated the Deepwater Horizon rig, found a failure rate of 45 percent. More details from the shocking report below.
• “Ultimate Failsafe Device” Prone to Failure
The New York Times reports that, “As it turns out, records and interviews show, blind shear rams [a type of blowout preventer] can be surprisingly vulnerable.” The small pieces of equipment known by some as the “ultimate failsafe device” in fact had a history of mixed success and one Transocean study found that the blowout preventers had a 45 percent “failure rate,” and the entire device could be rendered useless by the failure of a single valve. “If that would’ve worked,” said one executive “that rig wouldn’t have burned up and sunk.”
• Deepwater Horizon Fell Behind on Updates
Even in an industry rife with poor regulation, BP, and the Deepwater Horizon in particular, stand out as unsafe and out-of-date. While the vast majority of oil rigs were outfitted with two blind shear rams according to changing industry standard, the Deepwater Horizon had just one which, like others, was susceptible to “single-point failure.” According to the Times, the decision to equip the Horizon with just one blowout preventer came after most other rigs under the contractor Transocean featured two, and it is unclear why the Deepwater Horizon failed to be updated.
• Cutting Corners
BP executives consistently and deliberately cut corners to save both time and money, reports show, directly resulting in faulty and out-of-date equipment such as the single blind shear ram. The company’s most recent safety checks in 2005 already revealed a number of major problems with the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer, with one major piece of equipment “leaking badly” according to reports. Many checkpoints were skipped over because the rig was underwater and in the middle of operations, and BP later replaced a secondary ram in the preventer with a “test ram” in order to save money, even confirming with Transocean executives that the move would raise the company’s “risk profile.” “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,” said Henry A. Waxman, Chariman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
• Regulation? What Regulation?
In spite of gross oversight throughout the ranks at BP, industry and government regulators also have a good deal of the blame to shoulder. The Times reports that government standards don’t require consistent checks of key blind shear ram elements, nor do basic industry checks. One engineer who conducted checks for the Minerals Management Service explained that despite the blind shear ram’s importance, drilling companies ignored the advice of experts and never required proof of the preventer’s ability to operate 5,000 feet under the water. Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes explained that officials were overtaken by “the NASA kind of fervor” in response to “terrific technology” for drilling, and that “the track record was good. The results were significant.” An industry report described a culture of “I don’t want to find problems; I want to do the minimum necessary to obtain a good test,” among both companies and regulators.