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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.

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The 2009 study recommended a “safety alert” concerning the threat of failure of a BOP valve called an annular. Annular valves are like a large doughnut made of rubber and steel that can be mashed into the pipe to seal a well. The study recommended an alert that would derate – or lower – the estimate of how much pressure the annulars could handle when special large-bore drill pipe was being used.

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“Failures have occurred while using this drill pipe size with standard [annular] elements,” the study found.

No such alert was ever issued, the MMS confirmed in e-mailed comments. The 2009 study “is not an MMS study” and therefore its “proprietary” data never became part of the agency’s safety research program data, the MMS wrote.

But the study itself and the prospectus for it refer to a partnership between MMS and 17 oil companies and other industry groups. The study and other documents related to it also reference four senior MMS officials who participated in the report.

No. 4: failure to cut pipe

The 2004 study for MMS suggested that changes in industry practices made shear rams increasingly prone to failure in deep water, a finding first reported by The Wall Street Journal. Among the problematic changes: higher well-bore pressures and greater drill pipe thickness.

Only 3 of 14 newer deep-water drilling rigs were found able to shear pipe at their maximum rated water depths, the study found. Not only that, only half of those rigs' operators required a shear-ram test during commissioning or acceptance. “This grim snapshot illustrates the lack of preparedness in the industry to shear and seal a well with the last line of defense against a blowout,” the study said.

Moreover, the industry was increasingly compounding the problem by using thicker, harder-to-cut pipes in deeper water. The shear rams could also fail if a thicker “tool joint” in the drilling pipe was between the rams when a disaster stuck.

In an e-mail, MMS writes that it did have a 2003 regulatory requirement that required rig operators to file data that show shear rams “are capable of shearing the drill pipe in the hole under maximum anticipated surface pressures.”

But even after the more comprehensive 2004 study, the MMS did not issue safety alerts or require specific new requirements for shear ram design to ensure they were powerful enough to cut the thickest pipe.

Oversight questions

All this raises the question: How tough should federal regulators be?

During the past decade, MMS’s approach has been to set a performance goal but not to dictate any specific requirements or regulatory standards.
But the president’s 30-day safety review of offshore drilling offers a laundry list of measures that will likely lead to tougher requirements, experts say.

At a New Orleans hearing last month, Michael Saucier, MMS field-operations supervisor in the Gulf, testified to federal investigators that the agency did not ensure that BP had proof that shear rams on Deepwater Horizon would work. But the agency had “highly encouraged” companies to have backup systems to trigger blowout preventers in an emergency, he said.

“Highly encourage?” US Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, asked. “How does that translate to enforcement?”

“There is no enforcement,” Mr. Saucier answered.