BP Oil Spill Shows Blowout Systems Need Redesign, Panel Says

Blowout preventers, which are supposed to seal off an oil well in an emergency, must be redesigned to prevent failures like the one last year at BP Plc’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the final report of a technical panel.

The U.S. government and the energy industry had “misplaced trust” in the ability of blowout preventers to act as fail-safe mechanisms, a committee of the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council said in a report today. The 57 foot (17 meter) valve systems, which stand atop deep-water wells, weren’t designed or tested for the conditions that existed when the Macondo well exploded, the report found.

A blowout at the Macondo well in April 2010 killed 11 workers aboard Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana, causing it to sink and resulting in the biggest offshore U.S. oil spill in history. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude went into the Gulf while operators fought for 87 days to seal the well.

If the blowout preventer had cut off the flow of oil and gas from the well, the rig might not have sunk and the spill probably would’ve been smaller, the report found.

“It failed to stop the blowout because of its design and operational shortcomings,” the committee reported. “There is an urgent need for those shortcomings to be corrected.”

‘Limited’ Evolution

The 400-ton system built by Cameron International Corp. was four years overdue for maintenance and hadn’t been disassembled and refurbished since the Deepwater Horizon was commissioned in 2001, Jason Mathews, a member of a joint U.S. Coast Guard-Interior Department investigative panel, said during an April 6 hearing in Metairie, Louisiana.

Cameron invented blowout preventers in 1922 and “the evolution of this expensive and long-lived piece of equipment appears to have been limited,” according to today’s report. It “was neither designed nor tested for the dynamic conditions that most likely existed at the time that attempts were made to recapture well control” at Macondo.

There’s no industry standard or independent certification for blowout preventers as there is for household circuit breakers, another safety device designed to prevent fires, Roger McCarthy, a panel member and engineer based in Palo Alto, California, said today in a telephone press conference.

Time Needed

More rigor is needed to understand the potential demands on a subsea blowout preventer, Donald Winter, the committee chairman, said in today’s press conference. Engineers need to build in better instrumentation so that operators can identify what’s going on at the wellhead, he said.

“It’s not a matter that’s going to be accomplished in a very short period of time,” Winter said.

The report, requested by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, is the latest in a series of three government probes of the disaster. President Barack Obama appointed a commission to investigate the spill and the Coast Guard and Interior Department held their own joint inquiry.

A November 2010 interim report by the same committee issuing today’s findings said key staff overlooked signs of a failed cement plug that led to the blowout. It accused BP, its contractors and federal regulators of weak oversight. Today’s report proposes new procedures and regulation of well design and offshore rigs.

Today’s report “is consistent with the consensus that has emerged from every official investigation,” BP, based in London, said today in an e-mailed statement. “The Deepwater Horizon accident was complex and the result of multiple causes involving multiple parties.”

‘Robust and Reliable’

It also calls for redesign of blowout preventers to allow for “robust and reliable cutting, sealing and separation,” as well as new testing and maintenance procedures.

The government in September 2010 required drillers to have third-party verification that blowout preventers are capable of cutting off pipes, as well as having the ability to remotely close off the valves.

The report “has helped to affirm the tremendous efforts we have made in the last 18 months to raise the bar for safety and oversight of offshore oil and gas operations,” Salazar said in a statement. “The work we have done to implement rigorous new offshore drilling and safety rules and reform offshore regulation and oversight is in line with the recommendations of the committee.”

First Step

BP, based in London, won permission on Oct. 21 to resume oil exploration in the Gulf’s deep waters. The company said on July 15 it will use blowout preventers with added equipment to cut off the flow in the event of an emergency in the Gulf.

Salazar is scheduled to be in New Orleans today to announce the first Gulf of Mexico oil and natural-gas leases to be awarded since the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

“There’s been a significant improvement in safety in the Gulf,” Winter said in today’s press conference. “Our concern is whether it is a good first step, or a transient response in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon incident.”

Adoption of the committee recommendations would “institutionalize” a higher level of safety, he said.

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