Remember the BP oil spill of 2010? Who could forget? It’s not a matter of if, but when, the next major oil drilling accident and the spill will happen in the Gulf of Mexico. The downturn in oil prices aside, the number of rigs in the Gulf now stands at 59 – a 23% increase over the last year alone. New oil companies are flocking to the Gulf, and production is expected to rise to 1.9 million barrels of oil a day by 2019, an increase of 26% over the previous four years.
Yet this rosy picture hides a dirty secret: the same key machinery that failed to prevent the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill – the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history– is still in wide use today. I am talking about oil well blow-out preventers.
Blow-Out Preventers Need Upgrading to New Safety Standards
Blow-out preventers are a rig’s last line of defense against runaway wells both offshore and onshore. They are critical to the safety of the crew, rig, and environment. In the case of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, the blow-out preventer failed to seal the pipe as it was supposed to. Instead, it punched a hole in the pipe, allowing the oil to gush unchecked into the sea.
An extensive report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) sheds more light on design and operations problems with the Deepwater blow-out preventer. The report concluded the component meant to shear and seal the well was not suitable for use in drilling operations, the wiring was flawed, and two backup batteries may have failed. The report further noted that adequate inspections or testing could have revealed these flaws before they became fatal.
Potentially Faulty Blow-Out Preventers Still In Use
The same piece of equipment is still in wide use in the Gulf and elsewhere. According to the CSB, “this results in potential safety gaps in U.S. offshore operations and leaves open the possibility of another similar catastrophic accident.” How many of these blow-out preventers have been retooled and retested since the 2010 disaster? From my experience with the oil and gas industry, probably few to none. To do so would be expensive and difficult – adjectives that cause oil company executives to close their eyes, plug their ears and go “mi-mi-mi-mi-mi.”
The Gulf is poised for a wave of new drilling activity; three major new deepwater oil fields have been discovered in the Gulf since 2009. The oil industry should establish new, tougher safety standards for blow-out-preventers and other key safety elements on oil rigs in advance of new construction, and require inspections and retesting of existing blow-out preventers.
If the industry does not learn from its own sad history, it will repeat it. When that happens – not if – one of the first questions will be whether rig owners re-inspected and retooled blow-out preventers to a higher level of safety that existed in 2010.