Thursday, June 17, 2010

Studies suggest MMS knew blowout preventers had 'critical' flaws

And Big Oil-led study earlier suggested that safety procedures were overdone. Noooo, we don't need effective regulation! That's for sissies.

Just stop to think for a moment whether the privatization of the oil industry is a good thing for humanity overall. BP, ExxonMobil etal are obscenely rich. What if we had that money to support our education system and infrastructure?


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.

Go to the original to see illustrations and photos.

Robot submarines vainly attempted to activate the shear rams on the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer on April 22 to close off the flow of oil from the Macondo well. Federal regulators from MMS set the standards for blowout preventers, but several studies suggest the agency took no action to tighten safety measures even when 'critical' vulnerabilities became apparent.

US Coast Guard/AP/file

he 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.
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In this diagram of a blowout preventer, the hydraulic rams are the horizontal, piston-like protrusions. The rams are designed to cut and seal the pipe in an emergency, shutting off the flow of oil. They failed during the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

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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.

RELATED: Before BP oil spill, Big Oil-led study urged feds to cut safety testing

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.

One type of hydraulic ram valve, called a shear ram, is designed to prevent a situation like the one in the Gulf. In the event of a catastrophic failure, the shear rams are supposed to stop the flow of oil by cutting and crumpling the pipe between them. The Deepwater Horizon’s shear rams failed, though it’s not yet clear why.

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