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Blowout preventer problems were known as early as 2002


Craig Medred | May 24, 2010

Years before the Gulf of Mexico became witness to the nightmare scenario of an unstoppable volcano of crude oil gushing from an unplugged oil well deep beneath the ocean, both the oil industry and the federal agency charged with monitoring seabed drilling off America’s coasts knew the last-ditch “failsafe” technology intended to prevent just this sort of catastrophe might not work.

A 2002 mini-study of so-called shear rams — devices designed to cut and seal oil wells in the event of a cataclysmic blowout — found that in real world tests, two out of seven (nearly 30 percent) of the rams didn’t work. The study further warned that “when operational considerations were accounted for, shearing success dropped to three out of six.”

“This grim snapshot illustrates the lack of preparedness in the industry to shear and seal a well with the last line of defense against a blowout,” warned a lengthy follow-up analysis done for the U.S. Minerals Management Service in 2004.

“That’s a good report,” Mik Else of the MMS Engineering and Research Branch said Monday. “We put a lot of attention to that report.”

What exactly MMS did with the information, however, is unclear. Else wouldn’t talk. He is under orders to stay mum. MMS employees, he said, have been told to clear all information with the agency’s public affairs office before conducting interviews with reporters interested in anything that might pertain to BP’s ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf.

“We have the president breathing down our neck,” Else said, not to mention a variety of Congressional committees racing to be the first to figure out whom exactly to blame for what is developing into the nation’s largest environmental disaster. It is a disaster that, in theory, should have been prevented by the aforementioned shear ram.

It is a disaster everyone hopes to avoid when — or if — Royal Dutch Shell starts drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the northern Alaska coast this summer. As this is written, drilling there is on hold pending a May 28 announcement from the White House of a review on drilling safety. Though Shell has the permits to drill, the White House could still stop work this summer.
Shell Alaska Venture officials say they are confident they can operate safely in the Chukchi and Beaufort. More than 50 wells were drilled there in the 1970s without a problem. Though the weather conditions are worse than in the Gulf of Mexico, the drilling itself is technologically simpler.

Drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort is slated to take place in hundreds of feet of water, not thousands of feet as in the Gulf. The wells themselves are to be drilled only a fraction as deep beneath the seabed. And there are no indications Shell could find a pocket of pressurized gas anywhere close to as powerful as the one BP hit in the Gulf.

Shell Alaska Operations Manager Brent Ross, a highly experienced driller who has worked in the Arctic before, is confident the Chukchi and Beaufort can be drilled safely. He believes that even if Shell had a blowout, there wouldn’t be the underground energy associated with it to create the sort of volcano BP is dealing with in the Gulf. But even Ross admits it is impossible to eliminate all risks.

Enter the shear ram.

The shear ram is supposed to be to the offshore oil drillers what the ejector seat is to a fighter pilot. When drilling spins out of control and the ship is lost, the drill rig operator hits the shear ram to cut the drill pipe, seal the well and save the environment — if not necessarily the people on the rig.

Eleven oilfield workers died April 20 when the oil well being drilled almost a mile below the Deepwater Horizon drill ship in the Gulf blew out. Deep beneath the seabed, a pressurized pocket of natural gas and oil somehow overpowered the weight of the drilling mud that was supposed to keep it tamped down in the drill pipe. The gas escaped upward, exploding and starting a fire aboard the Horizon. The ship eventually sank. The pipeline connecting it to the well bent, twisted and broke as it went down. Oil began spewing out of the broken pipe in three places.

That was more than a month ago. One of the leaks was capped quickly. The other two have continued to gush. Millions of gallons of crude oil have flowed into the Gulf, and though well owner BP is now trying yet another effort to stem the leak, millions more — if not tens of millions more — could continue to flow.

This was not supposed to have happened. Down on the seabed, a device called a “blowout preventer” was to have averted this disaster through a variety of means. The blowout preventer “stack,” as the industry calls the five-story-tall, 300-ton series of oil well control devices, has a variety of ways to choke off the flow of oil from a gushing well.

The shear ram is but the last of them. It is supposed to be the failsafe for when all the other systems fail. In theory, it is will slice right through the pipe and leave a cap over the well.

The shear ram didn’t work in the Gulf. No one knows for sure why. No one will know for sure why until the blowout preventer is actually retrieved from the ocean floor. But the shear ram failure comes as no real surprise to those in the oil industry. Drillers have for years known of several flaws in shear ram design.

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