Board: Oil drilling risks remain from device woes

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 5, 2014 at 4:35 pm •  Published: June 5, 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The key last-ditch safety device that failed to prevent the 2010 BP oil spill remains a potentially catastrophic problem today for some offshore drilling, according to a federal safety board investigation.

The report issued Thursday by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board details the multiple failures and improper testing of the blowout preventer and blames bad management and operations for the breakdown. They found faulty wiring, a dead battery and a bent pipe in the hulking device.

"The problems with this blowout preventer were worse than we understood," safety board managing director Daniel Horowitz said in an interview. "And there are still hazards out there that need to be improved if we are to prevent this from happening again."

The safety board, like the National Transportation Safety Board, can investigate but has no regulatory power. It recommended new safety standards and regulations in its report.

If the offshore oil drilling industry doesn't adopt them and regulators don't tighten up oversight of these devices, it "opens the possibility of another catastrophic accident," lead investigator Cheryl MacKenzie said at a news conference Thursday.

But investigators also noted that the industry is working on new designs that could fix many of the problems the safety board outlined. And the American Petroleum Institute issued a statement saying the report "ignores the tremendous strides made to enhance the safety of offshore operations."

The nation's worst offshore oil spill followed an explosion that killed 11 workers at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. The blowout preventer anchored to the top of the underwater well should have stopped the leak.

In such emergencies, the device uses multiple mechanisms — including clamps and quick-release blades — to try to choke off the oil flowing up from a pipe and disconnect the rig from the well. It can operate automatically when pressure or electricity is cut off or manually.

The one that failed was 9 years old, nearly 57 feet tall and weighed about 400 tons. After it broke down, an estimated 172 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf for 87 days.

Robert Bea, a professor of engineering and expert in oil pipelines at the University of California Berkeley, praised the report and said blowout preventers are like cruise ship lifeboats, used only in last resort but crucial. In this case, and potentially in some others still out there, a blowout preventer may be "deeply flawed" or full of holes, said Bea, who was not involved in the new study.