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Offshore drilling moratorium: US cites blowout preventers' weak spot

The Obama administration on Monday cited control systems on subsea blowout preventers as one reason for its offshore drilling moratorium. But more than a year before the BP oil spill, authorities learned that balky control systems were the most common cause of blowout preventer failure.

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The study shows that industry representatives reviewing the findings wrestled with their meaning and sought clarification about the vulnerability of control systems on BOPs. In an appendix to the 2009 study, unidentified industry officials commented on control system failures and asked the consultant about it.

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"What's being said [in the report] is that the control system is the problem child in the system, but redundancy is the savior?" the industry officials commented.

"Yes, control systems are the problem and redundancy is the savior," the authors responded.

Officials at West Engineering did not return Monitor e-mails or phone calls. MMS officials, along with the Department of Interior, responded to e-mailed questions but refused requests for an interview.

Asked if the MMS had changed, or considered changing, its testing frequency for control systems, MMS said: "No, MMS has always required operators to function test annular and ram BOPs every 7 days between pressure tests."

The MMS added that the 2009 study "is not an MMS study" and therefore the high frequency of control system failures was "proprietary" information that never became part of the agency's safety research program data.

But key people at MMS did know of the control system problem. The agency provided funding for the study, several industry experts told the Monitor. Moreover, a prospectus for the study and the study itself both refer to a close partnership between BP, at least eight other oil companies, and the MMS.

Three senior MMS officials are listed in the study as involved and raising questions about it: Lars Herbst, regional director of the Gulf of Mexico OCS Region; William Hauser, chief of the Regulations and Standards Branch, and Kirk Malstrom, an agency petroleum engineer. The Interior Department, which is coordinating media requests for the MMS during its reorganization, did not grant requests to interview those MMS officials. In review comments on the report, MMS officials asked questions about rig performance, failure detection, and a few other issues. None questioned the report's central finding: the high rate of control system failures.

"This sort of touch-and-feel evolutionary approach to loosening testing standards is not good engineering," says Bea, who has read the study. "I would never want to fly on an aircraft whose safety margins are regulated this way."

Paul Helfer, a former senior engineer with BOP-maker Cameron International, who now does consulting work in the industry, says control system standards need reexamination and a new set of testing requirements.

"It's a pretty good chore to ensure a control system works and stays working," he says. "That has to include some serious testing."