Studies suggest MMS knew blowout preventers had 'critical' flaws
Government regulators have said that the failure of the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer April 20 was unforeseeable. But studies conducted for federal regulators in MMS or with their participation show that blowout preventers were known to have 'safety critical' vulnerabilities.
The federal agency charged with setting safety standards for offshore oil exploration failed to act on at least four warnings about vulnerabilities in subsea blowout preventers, the critical safety device that failed to shut down the Gulf oil spill when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April 20.Skip to next paragraph
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Each of those four design flaws – detailed in three studies conducted for the US Minerals Management Service (MMS) during the past decade – threatened the ability of blowout preventers in deep water to function in an emergency.
Yet the flaws did not result in federal safety alerts or tougher standards for blowout preventer (BOP) manufacturers, say experts familiar with the MMS response to such findings.
With investigators still seeking to determine the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, it remains unclear whether any of these vulnerabilities played a role in the failures that led to the Gulf oil spill. But MMS’s lack of action in spite of warnings about the flaws, three of which have not been previously reported, points to a long pattern of ignoring rather than fixing known safety threats, the experts say.
“Were BOPs designed to fail and did MMS know this? Yes, some of their key people knew,” says Robert Bea, an engineer at the University of California, Berkeley and one of the expert reviewers of President Obama’s 30-day offshore oil-exploration safety review. “Did BP know?” he adds. “Yes, some of their key people knew. Did the industry know? Yes, some of their key people knew.”
So what exactly did the MMS and industry officials know about the BOPs’ vulnerabilities and when? Government and industry officials have said the Deepwater Horizon disaster was unforeseeable – that BOPs were previously regarded as a virtually infallible “last line of defense” against a catastrophic blowout in deep water.
But a deeper look into three engineering studies from 2004, 2006, and 2009 commissioned by MMS – or done with MMS participation – tells a different story. The 2009 study, for instance, identifies 62 instances of BOP failures, four of which were deemed “safety critical.” The study was a joint industry-MMS venture and included the participation of at least four senior MMS officials. Each study sounded warnings about BOP vulnerabilities that, if heeded, could have given the agency years to fix them.
Officials at West Engineering Service, the consulting company and BOP specialist that conducted all three of the studies referenced in this article, did not return e-mails or phone calls. MMS officials, along with the Department of Interior, responded to e-mailed questions but refused requests for an interview.
“We are looking at everything, from what happened on the rig that night and the equipment that was being used, to the safety, testing, and backup procedures that are in place for that equipment,” Kendra Barkoff, Interior Department press secretary, wrote in an e-mail. “It’s also clear that we need a stronger oversight and enforcement agency to police the industry.”
The four design flaws highlighted by the three studies are as follows. The first three have not been previously reported.
No. 1: deep water pressure
In the fall of 2006, West Engineering Services of Brookshire, Texas, turned over to MMS officials a study on the effects of pressure on BOPs. Among its key findings: High deep-water pressure could severely damage the critical gaskets and seals on BOPs’ hydraulic ram valves, causing them to leak and fail in an emergency.