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.

Oil spews from a broken pipe 5,000 feet below the surface, as seen in this video image of the BP oil spill taken May 12. A 2009 Big Oil-funded study that suggests cutting safety testing on offshore drilling renews fears that industry interests trump US safety regulations.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

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."

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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.

The April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig would not have happened if the "fail-safe" blowout preventer had worked as expected, Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in May.

"Before the blowout, it is clear that there was an assumption that a BOP would never fail," Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told a Senate committee recently.

Of course, leaks have occurred as oil companies plumbed the Outer Continental Shelf for new energy supplies. MMS has recorded 39 blowouts in US waters from 1992 to 2006 – despite the use of BOPs.

The industry-led study of blowout preventer reliability included these findings:

•During safety testing, BOP components and control systems had 62 failures across 238 subsea wells drilled over three years (2004-06) in the Gulf of Mexico.

•Four of the 62 BOP breakdowns were "safety critical failures," i.e., failures that would "prevent the BOP or a component of the system from closing and sealing on demand and allowing an uncontrolled release of fluid from the well bore," the study found. One safety-critical failure was so severe that, if a blowout had occurred at the time of the test, "they would not have been able to contain it."

•A total of 89,189 BOP pressure tests and other tests were conducted during the study period. The 62 failures during those tests produced failure rates much less than 1 percent for the blowout preventer's hydraulic rams and other pressure systems – rates that, according to the report's authors, justified a reduced schedule of pressure testing. More than doubling the number of days between such tests "will not result in substantial changes to reliability," the study concluded.

Some omissions

The study did not evaluate the failure rate per drilling rig (37 were in the study) or per well. Safety experts in the nuclear and other industries often use such an approach to identify potential problems.

Using the study's data, a Monitor analysis shows there was one "safety critical" failure for every 59.5 wells drilled in the test period, and one per 9.5 rigs.

"Applying generic data gathered from a fleet of rigs to an individual rig can provide a useful picture of reliability," says David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We've done this kind of breakdown for nuclear plants. I would not have any qualms about doing this for blowout preventer reliability."

More backup sought

While the reliability study recommended less BOP testing, it also called for more redundancy in the blowout preventer stack to ensure that any failing equipment would have backup.

"Additional redundancy for specific components should be considered," it said.

One such BOP component is the blind-shear ram, a last-line-of-defense emergency hydraulic piston designed to slice through the drill pipe and seal the well. While two blind-shear rams were "in place on many rigs," many other rigs would benefit from installation of a second blind-shear ram, the study says.

Even so, the study recommended that the government loosen its testing regimen for this type of ram – once every 77 days rather than every 30 days. The blind-shear ram on the Deepwater Horizon rig is suspected of failing to cut through the pipe to close off the blowout.

The study also found big disparities between the failure rates of older blowout preventers and newer models. BOP failure rates also varied by company: Some firms' equipment failed six times sooner than other firms' BOPs.

Authors of the report at West Engineering, a Brookshire, Texas, consulting firm, refused multiple requests for comment. A spokesman at the American Petroleum Institute declined to comment.

Cameron International, which made the BOP used on the Deepwater Horizon rig, has "never characterized company products as fail-safe," says spokesman Mike Pascale.

Department of Interior officials refused Monitor requests to interview MMS officials involved with the BOP reliability report, citing an ongoing reorganization to split the agency's enforcement duties from its royalty-gathering operations.

"We need a stronger oversight and enforcement agency to police the industry, and that's why Secretary [Ken] Salazar divided up MMS so that its conflicting missions are separate and independent," Kendra Barkoff, Interior Department press secretary, wrote in a statement.

BOP systems consultants say blowout preventers remain vulnerable to failure in spite of design redundancies and very low component failure rates.

"Nothing is fail-safe, including blow-out preventers," says Paul Helfer, a former senior engineer in the research and development department of Cameron International. "Anything can fail. You just do whatever you can to make it as reliable as you can."

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