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How Technology Failed in the Gulf Spill

The disaster exposes overreliance on blowout preventers that has been long disparaged by insiders.

The unabated flow of crude oil from a well off the Louisiana coast speaks to “the tyranny of distance and the tyranny of depth,” according to Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, named by President Obama last week to be national incidence commander to take control of the response effort from BP.

Tyranny of depth: The robotic arm of a remotely operated vehicle attempts to activate the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer to stem the ongoing deepwater petroleum.

Allen has expanded already extensive efforts to disperse, skim, and block the oil that is surfacing from the well blowout that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drill rig last month. But he told a media briefing this weekend that his top job is stopping the flow of new oil into the sea–a complex and risky process at the one-mile depths where Deepwater Horizon drilled.

The oil leak also reveals an overreliance on one piece of equipment that academic and industry experts have warned of for close to a decade: The blowout preventers, or BOPs, that are the industry’s primary line of defense against deepwater oil spills.

Industry experts say BOPs will be front and center in a review of offshore drilling technology ordered by Obama last week, to be completed this month, prior to authorizing any further drilling. “A thorough review and technology change is likely coming now,” says Paul Bommer, a senior lecturer in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Deepwater Horizon’s BOP is a 450-ton set of hydraulic rams that straddles the wellhead, just above the seabed. When the well blew out last month, sending oil and natural gas up the well, signaling from the rig operators or loss of communication with the surface should have automatically released pneumatic pressure stored in the BOP’s tanks, driving it to mechanically crimp or shear off the well pipe and close off the well.

BP has been using remotely operated vehicles in a hitherto vain effort to activate Deepwater Horizon BOP’s control system’s valves. Some experts say that the Deepwater Horizon BOP’s lack of a signaling device called an acoustic trigger, which enables remote control of some rigs’ BOPs, probably had no impact in this case. Bommer says an acoustic trigger would simply have sent the same signal that the remotely operated vehicles are now delivering, albeit several days earlier.

A second rig has been positioned at the leak site to commence the industry’s only proven fallback measure once an undersea well has blown out: bypassing the BOP by drilling a new well or wells to intersect with and then block the leaking well. Unfortunately drilling a relief well will take two to three months.

The delay does not stem from the need for high-precision. Intersecting a seven-inch-wide pipe from several miles away is well within the telemetry capabilities of offshore drill rigs. Rather, the well will take months because of its depth: BP is planning to drill through 18,000 feet of rock to reach down close to the bottom of the leaking well.

Andy Radford, a petroleum engineer and senior policy advisor for offshore issues at the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington trade group, says BP needs to drill deep to create a relief well with sufficient mass to counteract the force of flowing oil. “You have pressure coming up the well from the producing formation. It’s thousands of pounds per square inch coming up the hole. You need to be able to overcome that pressure with the kill fluids. The deeper you intersect, the less pump pressure you need to overcome the pressure of the well coming up,” says Radford.

In a worst-case scenario, the force of one relief wells will prove insufficient, requiring drilling of a second, adding further delay.

Meanwhile, BP and its industry partners are hatching an array of alternate efforts that have never been tested in ultra-deepwater conditions (1,500 meters or more of water depth). These include placing a funnel-like structure over the leaks and sucking it to a ship on the surface, pumping chemical dispersants to the leak to break up the oil and keep it from reaching the surface, and crimping the broken riser pipe coming up from the wellhead.

Allen says that all of these ideas have promise, but the latter is the more risky since it could interfere with existing crimps in the pipe and actually increase the flow of oil several fold. The flow is very roughly estimated at 5,000 barrels per day currently.

Why weren’t these alternative methods validated prior to this accident? “It’s something I’m sure we’ll look at,” says Radford.

While the Deepwater Horizon leaks’ depth is unprecedented, it was not unanticipated. A report by engineering consulting firm URS Corp. in 2002 concluded that “Technologies used in shallow waters are no longer adequate for water depths over 1,000 meters. As a result, the environmental consequences of some of the newer deepwater technologies are not well understood.”

In 2005 petroleum engineering researchers from Texas A&M University suggested that drilling in the “dangerous and unknown” ultra-deep environment required new blowout control measures: “While drilling as a whole may be advancing to keep up with these environments, some parts lag behind. An area that has seen this stagnation and resulting call for change has been blowout control.”

An analysis of incidents in the Gulf of Mexico by the Texas A&M researchers showed that offshore blowouts had continued at “a fairly stable rate” since 1960 despite the use of BOPs. Regulators require inspection of BOPs every 14 days. BP says it inspected the Deepwater Horizon’s 10 days before last month’s blowout.

Bommer says the most likely technology change that will come out of Obama’s mandated review is the addition of a second, independent sea-floor BOP.

That is unlikely to satisfy some critics, who are pushing the Obama administration to withdraw plans to extend offshore oil and gas drilling beyond the Gulf Coast. “The bottom line in our view is that there is no safe way to drill that is guaranteed, and that the safety and cleanup technology has not kept pace with the drilling technology. This is why we are calling for a moratorium on all new drilling, including for exploration,” says Jacqueline Savitz, a senior scientist with Oceana, an international ocean protection advocacy group.

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