Sheila McNulty Blowout preventers are no guarantee against disaster

The oil and gas industry has been afraid there might be repercussions from the recent  investigation that found Macondo’s blowout preventer failed to close because a section of drill pipe had buckled during the accident and blocked efforts to seal it off.

Gary Luquette, Chevron’s president for North America exploration and production, said the industry would learn from the report. But he hopes it will not lead regulators to stop the permitting process just when companies have started to see progress. He explained:

The best way to deal with a blowout is never to have one. In this case, the pipe was blown up the hole because of a loss of control situation. If you have complete loss of control, you can’t imagine a BOP that can be designed for that.

Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, seems to agree. He told FT Energy Source:

We knew all along (since Macondo) the BOP didn’t serve its intended function. The specific ways it failed, as laid out in the report, is less significant than the fact that it failed.

This is why, he says, the bureau has been so intent upon strengthening the system at every point. While the BOP is useful, and can play an important function as a backup, it is not a guarantee against a blowout.

The fact that he has accepted that means the investigation report is not as significant for him as it is for others who accepted the BOP as a major safeguard against diasasters.

There was a complacency that existed. The companies believed their own reassurances. It’s never been a riskless activity. There are risks. All you can do is drive down risks and prepare for the ‘what ifs’.

On that note, Marvin Odum, head of Shell’s US operations, said the BOP is an area that needs additional research and development to improve its function. But if companies are as careful as Shell has always tried to be, he said – with a full list of safety procedures that have gone above those required by regulators – then they will have their “bases covered”.

Since the accident, Odum said, Shell has made some important tweaks in how it drills and well design. “But,” he added, “they are tweaks nonetheless”. The real changes for the company have been the frequency of testing equipment and the dialogue it will now  have with regulators during drilling work and on BOP recertification. That is in addition to the  development of the spill response system with ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips.

In terms of operations, Odum said:

The changes in the amount of scrutiny to anyone operating on our behalf has changed in a notable way.

But now that permitting has resumed, Odum is hopeful the US will move forward not only in the gulf but in Alaska, where it has been trying for several years to drill. For he, like others in the industry, object to the US moving to import fuel from Brazil instead of ramping up its own production at home:

I think building a strategic resource path into this country is important but should not be a priority ahead of our own resource production.