Before BP oil spill, Big Oil-led study urged feds to cut safety testing
The 2009 study intensifies suspicions that Big Oil interests trumped US safety regulations, a concern that has been growing since the BP oil spill.
Blowout preventers – crucial safety devices in offshore drilling that are supposed to preclude undersea oil gushers like the one in the Gulf of Mexico – have failed 62 times during testing in Gulf waters over three years.Skip to next paragraph
A 2009 reliability study of blow-out preventers deployed in the Gulf of Mexico also found that four of those breakdowns were "safety critical failures," meaning the equipment malfunction was serious enough to have allowed "an uncontrolled release" of crude oil from the well bore.
The study, which has not before been reported in the press, is an example of the coziness between government regulators and the oil industry that has been much criticized since the Gulf oil spill, some say. Funded mainly by oil companies but with participation by the US Minerals Management Service (MMS), the study examines whether it is possible to scale back the frequency of safety testing required on blowout preventers. Such testing "is costly," the study notes. "Thus, a study to evaluate the relationship between testing and its impact on safety and environmental performance was warranted."
Its conclusions? Less testing. The study recommended that pressure testing of most blowout preventer systems occur a minimum of every 35 days rather than every 14 days. That would save the industry about $193 million a year, according to the study's prospectus. However, for the least-reliable component of blowout preventers – the hydraulic and electrical control systems – the study recommended keeping "function tests" at their current weekly rate.
The reduction in testing was never adopted, but the study highlights federal reliance on industry recommendations and intensifies suspicions that industry interests have been trumping US safety regulations.
"You're letting the people being regulated get too close to the regulators," says a blowout preventer expert who is familiar with the study and asked not to be named. "Is this study an example? I wouldn't argue with that. Is it too cozy? Right on."
The report's data analysis seems to him to be accurate, and he says redundancies built into the devices make them very safe, but he nonetheless questions whether the report's conclusions are justified. Its authors seem "less than enthusiastic" about their recommendations, he says, and the apparent industry-MMS agenda to justify less testing makes the report seem "precooked."
The 'fail-safe' myth
A blowout preventer (BOP) is essentially a massive school-bus-size "stack" of hydraulic valves weighing hundreds of tons. BOPs sit on the ocean floor beneath every drill rig in the Gulf – just in case.
Because of their multiple valve redundancy, BOPs have long been seen as working almost flawlessly, as statements from industry and government have implied.