Sheila McNulty Effectiveness of blowout preventers questioned

Deepwater Horizon explosionIt turns out the reason why the blowout preventer on BP’s Macondo well failed to close was because a section of drill pipe had buckled inside the well during the accident and blocked efforts to seal it off. This is according to Det Norske Veritas, a consultancy hired by the US interior department to investigate why the blowout preventer failed.

Cameron International, the maker of the blowout preventer, responded:

The BOP was designed and tested to industry standards and customer specifications. We continue to work with the industry to ensure safe operations.

Yet that is not enough to satisfy Edward Markey, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee of the House of Representatives. He is calling for the interior department to begin an immediate top-to-bottom inspection and review of the designs and effectiveness of all BOPs used in oil operations in US waters. In his words:

A blowout preventer is like a car’s airbag. It can’t prevent the car accident, but it is supposed to deploy and prevent fatalities. This report calls into question whether oil industry claims about the effectiveness of blowout preventers are just a bunch of hot air. It isn’t clear from this report that blowout preventers can actually prevent major blowouts once they’ve started….

The spill commission’s report said that the problems within the oil industry that led to the BP spill were systemic, and not unique to this disaster. Now we know there could also be systemic design issues with blowout preventers that could cause them to be ineffective, even when deployed as intended. We need a full review of every single blowout preventer used in the United States’ waters and revisit the designs of these supposed machines of last resort.

It is not a conclusion the oil industry is going to want the general public to reach. But the bottom line is that if the blowout preventer can be compromised during an accident, then it cannot be guaranteed to serve its purpose of preventing a blowout of the kind that spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico for three months last year.

The interior department had been moving – ever so slowly – toward letting the industry back in the Gulf. It is likely that this latest report is going to slow – if not reverse – that effort.