WASHINGTON — As offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere boomed, a 2003 report warned that the industry wasn't taking time to find and fix the problems that commonly plagued blowout preventers — the failsafe mechanisms designed to stop oil spills such as the one now threatening the Gulf Coast.
The report, delivered at an industry conference seven years ago and uncovered by the office of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was co-authored by the then-director of technology development for Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon rig that caught fire on April 20 and sank two days later.
Though the accident's cause remains unknown, an apparent malfunction of the blowout preventer, which sat on the wellhead beneath 5,000 feet of water, has allowed more than 200,000 gallons of oil to escape daily, creating a massive spill.
"There is clear evidence that the oil industry has been well aware for years of the risk that blowout preventers on offshore rigs could fail," said Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee's oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee.
However, Earl Shanks, the Transocean executive who co-wrote the report, said in a telephone interview with McClatchy that there have been improvements over the past seven years.
"In my opinion, the equipment has gotten better," Shanks said.
Cantwell isn't so sure.
A 2008 report written by officials of BP America and Transocean and published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers raised new questions about whether the blowout preventers on deepwater wells such as the one the Deepwater Horizon was drilling could have a new problem.
Blowout preventers, or BOPs, which weigh 500,000 pounds and are roughly as tall as a five-story building, activate rams that punch a hole in the pipeline connecting the well to the surface, and then block the pipeline. The rams, the report said, may have "difficulty shearing today's high-strength, high toughness drillpipe" used in deepwater wells.
The 2003 report
The 10-page report, delivered at the 2003 Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, suggests that the industry was so focused on drilling that it was willing to pay higher maintenance costs to keep rigs operating and avoid downtime rather than address some of the fundamental problems with the blowout preventers.
"Floating drilling rig downtime due to poor (blowout preventer) reliability is a common and very costly issue confronting all offshore drilling contractors," the report said, adding that every major disruption could cost $1 million.
The report said the reliability issues were directly related to the fact that drilling companies didn't have detailed design and functional specifications to give companies that manufactured blowout preventers.
The preventers were being rushed into the field with limited testing, and if one malfunctioned, the pressure to keep drilling meant it was fixed with little time spent trying to figure out what had caused the malfunction.
"Because of the pressure on getting the equipment back to work, root cause analysis of the failures is generally not performed," the report said. "In many operations, high maintenance is accepted as a necessary evil to prevent downtime."
The report said the problems were mostly with the control system that activates the large rams that punch through the pipe to stop the flow of oil. The control system has electrical and hydraulic components. The electrical circuits activate the hydraulic equipment that moves the rams. Each blowout preventer has two complete control systems as a backup.
"History has shown that more subsea problems have been associated with hydraulic components than the electrical," the report said. Hydraulic problems can only be fixed by bringing the top half of the blowout preventer to the surface.
Crews on the Deepwater Horizon have said they activated the blowout preventer from the deck of the rig before fleeing. The blowout preventer is also equipped with sensors that should trigger a shutdown automatically. U.S. rigs, unlike those in Norway and Brazil, don't have to be equipped with a device to pick up an acoustic signal sent from the surface that also can activate the blowout preventer.
"The control system has historically been a problem area," Shanks said during the telephone interview from Houston, where he's an industry consultant. "The preventer itself is just a big hunk of metal."
With wells now being drilled in the deep ocean, blowout preventers have been equipped with additional safety features, Shanks said.
Cantwell isn't convinced. She said Congress needs to take a close look at the Minerals Management Service, the agency within the Interior Department that regulates offshore oil and gas drilling.
"We need to make sure this administration does not operate MMS like the Bush administration," Cantwell said. "Let's make sure this isn't too cozy a relationship between the regulators and the industry."