Regulators Failed to Address Risks in Oil Rig Fail-Safe Device By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: June 20, 2010
This article is by David Barstow, Laura Dodd, James Glanz,Stephanie Saul and Ian Urbina.
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
It was the last line of defense, the final barrier between the rushing volcanic fury of oil and gas and one of the worst environmental disasters in United States history.
Its very name — the blind shear ram — suggested its blunt purpose. When all else failed, if the crew of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig lost control of a well, if a dreaded blowout came, the blind shear ram’s two tough blades were poised to slice through the drill pipe, seal the well and save the day. Everything else could go wrong, just so long as “the pinchers” went right. All it took was one mighty stroke.
On the night of April 20, minutes after an enormous blowout ripped through the Deepwater Horizon, the rig’s desperate crew pinned all hope on this last line of defense.
But the line did not hold.
For days, technicians and engineers worked furiously to figure out why, according to interviews and hundreds of pages of previously unreleased notes scrawled by industry crisis managers in the disaster’s immediate aftermath.
Engineers sent robotic submersibles 5,000 feet deep to prod the blind shear ram, nestled in the bosom of a five-story blowout preventer standing guard over the Macondo well.
They were driven on, documents and interviews reveal, by indications that the shear ram’s blades had come within a few maddening inches of achieving their purpose. Again and again, they tried to make the blades close completely, knowing it was their best chance to end the nightmare of oil and gas billowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
“If that would’ve worked,” a senior oil industry executive said of the blind shear ram, “that rig wouldn’t have burned up and sunk.”
Much remains unknown about the failure of this ultimate fail-safe device. It continues to be a focus of inquiries, and some crucial questions will not be answerable until the blowout preventer is recovered from the sea.
But from documents and interviews, it is possible to piece together some of the decisions and events that came into play when the Deepwater Horizon most needed the blind shear ram.
Engineers contended with hydraulic fluid leaks that may have deprived the ram of crucial cutting force. They struggled to comprehend what was going on in the steel sarcophagus that encased the shear ram, as if trying to perform surgery blindfolded.
They wondered if the blades had by chance closed uselessly on one of the nearly indestructible joints that connect drilling pipe — a significant bit of misfortune, given a decision years before to outfit the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer with just one blind shear ram when other rigs were already beginning to use two of them to guard against just this possibility.
But the questions raised by the failure of the blind shear ram extend well beyond the Deepwater Horizon.
An examination by The New York Times highlights the chasm between the oil industry’s assertions about the reliability of its blowout preventers and a more complex reality. It reveals that the federal agency charged with regulating offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service, repeatedly declined to act on advice from its own experts on how it could minimize the risk of a blind shear ram failure.
It also shows that the Obama administration failed to grapple with either the well-known weaknesses of blowout preventers or the sufficiency of the nation’s drilling regulations even as it made plans this spring to expand offshore oil exploration.
“What happened to all the stakeholders — Congress, environmental groups, industry, the government — all stakeholders involved were lulled into a sense of what has turned out to be false security,” David J. Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, said in an interview.
Even in one significant instance where the Minerals Management Service did act, it appears to have neglected to enforce a rule that required oil companies to submit proof that their blind shear rams would in fact work.
As it turns out, records and interviews show, blind shear rams can be surprisingly vulnerable. There are many ways for them to fail, some unavoidable, some exacerbated by the stunning water depths at which oil companies have begun to explore.
But they also can be rendered powerless by the failure of a single part, a point underscored in a confidential report that scrutinized the reliability of the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer. The report, from 2000, concluded that the greatest vulnerability by far on the entire blowout preventer was one of the small shuttle valves leading to the blind shear ram. If this valve jammed or leaked, the report warned, the ram’s blades would not budge.
This sort of “single-point failure” figures prominently in an emerging theory of what went wrong with the Deepwater Horizon’s blind shear ram, according to interviews and documents. Some evidence suggests that when the crew activated the blind shear ram, its blades tried to cut the drill pipe, but then failed to finish the job because one or more of its shuttle valves leaked hydraulic fluid.
These kinds of weaknesses were understood inside the oil industry, documents and interviews show. And given the critical importance of the blind shear ram, offshore drillers began adding a layer of redundancy by equipping their blowout preventers with two blind shear rams.
Michael Moss and Henry Fountain contributing reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 21, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.
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- A Drill Ship Crew Labors to Sink a Well to Kill a Well (June 20, 2010)
- Day 61: The Latest on the Oil Spill (June 20, 2010)
- In Cleanup, It's Local Help Wanted, Workers Find (June 20, 2010)
BP Chief to Express Contrition in Remarks to Panel
Doug Mills/The New York Times
By JACKIE CALMES and HELENE COOPER
Published: June 16, 2010
Charles Dharapak/Associated Press
Mr. Hayward has faced withering criticism for his response to the spill, and was expected to receive another onslaught of anger as he testified before the House panel later Thursday morning.
“People lost their lives; others were injured; and the Gulf Coast environment and communities are suffering,” Mr. Hayward said in prepared remarks to be delivered to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “This is unacceptable, I understand that, and let me be very clear: I fully grasp the terrible reality of the situation.”
Also on Thursday, Mary L. Kendall, acting inspector general of the Interior Department, told lawmakers that the Minerals Management Service was taking a “completely backwards” approach in investigating the spill, “gathering evidence via public hearing rather than developing evidence to culminate in a public forum.”
Ms. Kendall underlined the serious shortage of minerals service inspectors covering drill sites in the Gulf of Mexico. There were only 60 inspectors there to oversee nearly 4,000 drilling facilities, while on the Pacific Coast 10 inspectors cover only 23 facilities, she said in testimony prepared for a House Committee on Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.
The minerals service has a difficult time recruiting inspectors, Ms. Kendall said, because the oil industry tends to offer considerably higher wages, and inspectors in the Gulf operate “with little direction as to what must be inspected, or how.” Mr. Hayward’s appearance before the Congressional panel comes one day after President Obamaannounced that BP would create a $20 billion fund to pay damage claims to thousands of fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast. BP also said it would suspend dividend payments to shareholders.
In prepared remarks, Mr. Hayward offered deep contrition, but few answers to the pressing questions stemming from the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, and the two-month oil spill.
“How could this happen?” Mr. Hayward said in the statement. “How damaging is the spill to the environment? Why is it taking so long to stop the flow of oil and gas into the Gulf?”
He went on to say: “We don’t yet have answers to all these important questions.”
The $20 billion fund announced on Wednesday will be administered by Kenneth R. Feinberg, the lawyer and mediator who ran the fund for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and has emerged as a troubleshooter on issues likeexecutive compensation and resolving claims for asbestos and Agent Orange victims.
While acknowledging that oil is likely to continue spewing from the well for perhaps months to come, Mr. Obama was able to throw something of a lifeline to desperate coastal residents worried about meeting payrolls, mortgages and shrimp boat payments.
Under the famous portrait of a charging Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, administration and company officials haggled over last details in an extraordinary White House meeting that went more than four hours, double the time scheduled, and was punctuated by breaks as each side huddled separately. Finally, participants said, Mr. Obama sealed the deal in a private, 25-minute session with BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg.
“This is not just a matter of dollars and cents” for a region upended by the spill, Mr. Obama, who returned Tuesday from a fourth tour of the coast, said he had told Mr. Svanberg.
“I emphasized to the chairman,” he said, “that when he’s talking to shareholders, when he is in meetings in his boardroom, to keep in mind those individuals — that they are desperate, that some of them, if they don’t get relief quickly, may lose businesses that have been in their families for two or three generations. And the chairman assured me that he would keep them in mind.”
Mr. Svanberg, looking somber as he left the White House, confirmed to waiting reporters that the president seemed “frustrated because he cares about the small people.” But he added: “People say that large oil companies don’t care about the small people. But we care. We care about the small people.”
The “small people” comment set off an immediate uproar in the blogosphere and elsewhere from people who said it showed BP’s indifference to those harmed by the spill. A BP spokesman called the remark a “slip in translation” by Mr. Svanberg, who is Swedish. Later Wednesday Mr. Svanberg apologized, saying he was “very sorry” he had spoken “clumsily.”
“What I was trying to say — that BP understands how deeply this affects the lives of people who live along the gulf and depend on it for their livelihood — will best be conveyed not by any words but by the work we do to put things right for the families and businesses who’ve been hurt,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Svanberg said the BP board, which met in emergency session on Monday in advance of the White House meeting, had agreed not to pay further dividends to shareholders this year. Faced with mounting criticism of his company, including from within the oil industry, he denied reports that BP had taken safety shortcuts on the Deepwater Horizon rig, where an April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and set in motion the leak that Mr. Obama has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.
Still, Mr. Svanberg said he wanted to “apologize to the American people on behalf of all the employees of BP.”
Robbie Brown contributed reporting from New Orleans, Julia Werdigier from London and Brian Knowlton from Washington.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 17, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.
- NEWS ANALYSIS; Obama's Twist of BP's Arm Stirs Debate on Frequent Tactic (June 17, 2010)
- Drilling Moratorium Means Hard Times for Gulf Rig Workers (June 17, 2010)
- POLITICAL TIMES; Add Government to the List of 'Fat Cats' (June 16, 2010)
- Obama, in Speech on Spill, Calls on Americans to Reduce Oil Dependence (June 15, 2010)
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