“Acoustic Switch” Would Not Have Saved BP Well

Speculation and wild allegations have begun to swirl around the blowout of BP’s Mississippi Canyon Block 252 well as efforts continue to control the spill and get the well killed.  One rumor tossed around by talking heads is that the US oil and gas industry got the MMS to not require a safety system used in the North Sea, calling it an “acoustic switch” that would have prevented the blowout on the Transocean Horizon.  LIke most complex issues, it’s just not that easy.

First, there’s no such thing as an “acoustic switch”.  What people are talking about is a communication and control system that doesn’t require an umbilical from the sea floor to the rig for control of subsea components, especially the blowout preventer.  Here’s a video from Cameron that gives a pretty good description of their version of an acoustic communication system (Sorry, it’s a sales video, so you have to ignore the music and the sales pitch):

While very sophisticated, the system basically performs the safety function of a “deadman” system, where the BOP will slam shut if it loses communication with the rig through the umbilical in the event of a catastrophic event such as this one.  In this particular incident, something clearly jammed the shear rams in the BOP; so, even if the Horizon had had an acoustic system installed, it very likely would not have resulted in a different outcome. 



  1. Rich says

    What do you think of the analysis from this story?
    Blowout preventers, or BOPs, which weigh 500,000 pounds and are roughly as tall as a five-story building, activate rams that punch a hole in the pipeline connecting the well to the surface, and then block the pipeline. The rams, the report said, may have “difficulty shearing today’s high-strength, high toughness drillpipe” used in deepwater wells.
    The 10-page 2003 report, delivered at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston that year, suggests that the industry was so focused on drilling that it was willing to pay higher maintenance costs to keep rigs operating and avoid downtime rather than address some of the fundamental problems with the blowout preventers.
    “Floating drilling rig downtime due to poor BOP (blowout preventer) reliability is a common and very costly issue confronting all offshore drilling contractors,” the report said, adding that every major disruption could cost $1 million.
    The report said the reliability issues were directly related to the fact that drilling companies didn’t have detailed design and functional specifications to give companies that manufactured blowout preventers.
    The preventers were being rushed into the field with limited testing, and if one malfunctioned, the pressure to keep drilling meant it was fixed with little time spent trying to figure out what had caused the malfunction.
    “Because of the pressure on getting the equipment back to work, root cause analysis of the failures is generally not performed,” the report said. “In many operations, high maintenance is accepted as a necessary evil to prevent downtime.”

  2. says

    It’s not surprising. Even though Cantwell got the function of the BOP wrong (it doesn’t punch a hole, the shear ram actually cuts the pipe off) the reliability has been a challenge. However, comparing software and control systems from 7 years ago to today is like comparing analog television to HDTV. Having said that, the Cameron BOP stack on the Horizon was a 2001 model and possibly all the upgrades had not been done to this unit.

  3. Michael Gibbert says

    Sounds like a lot of BS and speculation and an attempt to insulate Bush and Cheney from being held responsible for this disaster. Acoustic switches are required in many other countries when drilling off shore and are very real and DO work. Less safeguards in place are NOT the answer many more are needed and should be required for ALL offshore drilling.

  4. Michele says

    Michael, no one is denying that the acoustic switch doesn’t work. The point is that we don’t know for sure if it would have worked in this case. The acoustic switch is just an alternative way of activating the big valve system in the BOP stack. It would have only worked in this case if the problem was with the electrical control system. If it was a problem with the hydraulics (i.e. you need to have a LOT of force to shear drill pipe and/or casing) or if the rams simply were not able to shear completely through the tough drill pipe, then this system would NOT have worked in this case. Since the ROV (remotely operated vehicle) was sent down to the BOP stack on the sea floor to activate the valve system from down there, and failed, it seems less likely that it was a problem with the electrical control system…

  5. nathanj says

    um there are two…….2 other countries that require them by law. most countries dont. and since the uuvs couldnt close it it appears to be a mechanical issue and not an signal issue.

  6. Colin says

    I love how everyone has become an expert on these things in the past month! Everyone knows SO MUCH about the evil oil and gas companies! You have finally uncovered the EVIL plot of bush/cheney and every one else in the south!
    The facts remain. Accidents happen. Drilling or doing anything in the water 5000 feet down is extremely hard. You like your 2.50 gallon gas so they have to cut corners. B&P could walk away from this disaster and just not fix it. The American Government has no infrastructre or people to solve this aka they don’t own a super techno rig like the horizon, so having BP fix it a very good thing for us.
    People need to stop blaming and start helping and supporting those guys. The south is going to take a huge hit, any marine based industry (which is ALOT) is going to take a massive hit.
    So please, if you don’t know about the petroleum industry please be quiet. If you dont know how difficult this really is (even to make a BOP work), be quiet, blaming people doesnt do anything, only action does. I hate politics because politicians are stupid. I am not saying I know all the answers but I know when I don’t need to be opening my mouth.

  7. says

    No one seems to know that this explosion was deliberate or that BP, which is owned by Rothschild in the UK, who is the richest man on earth, refuses to allow the invention of a decent man in the UK to be used which would solve this disaster in 8 hours flat.
    Those facts and much more will be in my September 2010 edition for all the world to read for free. The decent UK gentleman even offered his invention at no cost to BP, and still they won’t accept it because they are being controlled by Rothschild just as Obama is who is fully aware of the solution to this crime.
    Arlene Johnson

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