BP Oil Spill: As Companies Point Fingers at Each Other, New Concerns About Blowout Preventers

Probe finds flaws with safety gear; blowouts big worry as industry drills deeper

May 12, 2010, 1:36 PM

May 12, 2010 — -- The initial phase of a Congressional investigation into the massive oil rig explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico uncovered new evidence Wednesday that showed a critical device meant to prevent a disaster had leaks and lacked sufficient force to seal off the well.

"This seemed astounding to us," said Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who is helping oversee the investigation. "The safety of its entire operations rested on the performance of a leaking, modified and defective blowout preventer."

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"This is supposed to be the last line of defense against a blow out of the well, but it failed," Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) added as Wednesday's hearing with oil executives got underway.

The new disclosures dealt with the so-called "blowout preventer," a five-story, 900,000-ton device on the sea floor that was supposed to cap the well before a blowout occurred. Its failure, while not the cause of the disaster, could have prevented the blast that killed 11 people and unleashed a flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the industry officials said.

Documents obtained by the committee and presented to the executives Wednesday showed the device had a significant leak in a key hydraulic system. This leak was found in the hydraulic system that provides emergency power to a shear arm that is supposed to cut the drill pipe and seal the well in an emergency. Another internal document released by the committee showed that the blowout preventer was not always powerful enough to cut through the joints in a drill pipe. It only worked 90 percent of the time, the document said.

The oil industry has repeatedly represented to federal regulators that blowout preventers are a key ingredient in what keeps offshore drilling safe. During Wednesday's hearing, they appeared to disagree over which company had responsibility for policing the effectiveness of the safety equipment.

The chairman of the company that operated the rig, Transocean, said the real trigger of the blast was faulty cement work by Halliburton. BP America's president, meanwhile, pointed to Transocean as responsible for maintaining the blowout preventer, as did a top Halliburton official.

Lamar McKay, the president of BP America, acknowledged the issues with the device and said they "could have raised concerns about well control." He pledged to investigate fully.

"We'll have to tear that apart piece by piece," McKay told the committee.

Recently unearthed studies commissioned by federal regulators and at times by the oil companies themselves, have for some time raised questions about possible shortcomings with the devices.

In 2004, a review conducted at Texas A&M as part of a student's master's thesis found that blowouts were becoming a special concern as the industry was pushing its drilling operations into deeper and deeper water.

"Unfortunately," the study overseen by Prof. Jerome J. Shubert and written by Samuel F. Noynaert said, "while drilling as a whole may be advancing to keep up with these [deep water] environments, some segments lag behind. Blowout control is one of these areas developed as an afterthought."

"This lax attitude towards blowouts does not mean they are not a major concern," the paper continues. "Obviously, up-to-date technology and techniques for the prevention and control of ultradeep water blowouts would be an invaluable part of any oil and gas company's exploration planning."

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