A critical safety system on offshore drilling rigs that’s meant to prevent injury, death, and environmental catastrophe can fail in a myriad of ways, according to a Project On Government Oversight (POGO) investigation.
This system, known as a blowout preventer, failed in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Blowouts are explosive well eruptions and blowout preventers are intended as the “last line of defense” in controlling and stopping them. POGO’s investigation found that since then, there have been accidents and close calls where blowout preventers have failed, sometimes in unanticipated ways. According to federal data, in 2017 alone, 18 of 25 rig operators in the Gulf of Mexico reported 1,129 blowout preventer equipment failures.
POGO’s investigation comes as the Trump Administration has proposed rolling back Interior Department safety requirements related to blowout preventers. Some of the proposed changes track suggestions by the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry lobbying group. The Administration has also called for opening Arctic waters to drilling, where extreme weather, remote locations, and ice could make an emergency response more difficult.
Among POGO’s findings:
- Blowout preventers may need to be able to control an eruption for an extended period of time. In a 2013 incident, a rig’s blowout preventer seemed to help for about 14 minutes, but then the blowout resumed unchecked.
The Trump Administration proposes to shorten the required duration of certain blowout preventer tests to 5 minutes, from the 30 minutes required by the current rules. Five minutes is “not long enough to test something,” said Don McClelland, an expert with a firm that inspects blowout preventers, told POGO. “You don’t know if it’s going to hold.”
- Pressure tests of blowout preventers have been falsified. A government report POGO obtained cites an inspector from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement saying “he personally had learned many years ago when working for private industry ... how to make such false [inspection] charts.” The Administration proposes to eliminate requirements intended to increase the independence of these inspections.
- In 2012, an expert with the National Academy of Engineering said at a Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement forum on blowout preventers: “If these things are going to be expected to work under conditions where all hell is breaking loose, they have to be tested in conditions that simulate all hell breaking loose.” A Bureau-commissioned study issued in 2015 found blowout preventers were still not tested in what the study called “Macondo conditions,” a reference to the well that Deepwater Horizon was drilling when it exploded. Neither the Bureau nor the American Petroleum Institute responded to queries on whether blowout preventers are now tested in such conditions.
If a commercial jetliner was only as reliable as a blowout preventer, “I wouldn’t get on that damn airplane if you made me,” Robert G. Bea, an emeritus engineering professor who led a University of California-Berkeley study of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, told POGO. Larger rigs can have 200 workers on them.
“This investigation provides overwhelming evidence that the Administration’s plan to allow the oil industry to essentially self-regulate—literally by relying on rules it wrote for itself—is a dangerous idea, and will gut critical safeguards intended to prevent future catastrophes like Deepwater Horizon,” said Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director.
“The federal government shouldn’t have to relearn the lesson that complex technologies in dangerous environments need serious, independent oversight. Otherwise, corners are cut, and unnecessary risks are taken—causing tragic, preventable deaths,” said Brian.
POGO’s investigation is in three parts: an examination of how blowout preventers fail; an analysis of the Administration’s proposed regulatory changes; and an account of the difficulty in gaining access to the industry-crafted standards that the proposed regulatory changes would give the force of law. In some of the episodes detailed in the investigation, POGO examined government reports and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.