Yesterday, the Department of Interior released Det Norske Veritas’ (DNV) report on the forensic testing that it conducted on the blowout preventer (BOP) that failed to shut in BP’s blown out Macondo well almost a year ago. I’m still going through the 500-plus page report to find answers to my many questions about the failed BOP, but I do agree with the over riding recommendation to the industry from DNV:
“The finding of these studies should be considered and addressed in the design of future Blowout Preventers and the need for modifying current Blowout Preventers.”
DNV was addressing a recommendation to the industry that it study the causes and results of “elastic buckling” of the drill pipe within the Macondo BOP that pushed it to the side of the wellbore, preventing the blind shear ram, or the ram that is supposed to cut the pipe and seal the well, from doing so. During the time of the blowout, the forces within the well were so strong that it lifted the drill pipe, causing it to buckle and push over to the side of the BOP bore, positioning it outside of the shearing faces of the rams.
The long-delayed DNV report is very thorough and highly technical. I’ve been wading through it for several hours and will write about some of their more detailed conclusions in a later post, but I wanted to make this one key point right now: The US Government is currently issuing permits to drill knowing full well that operators are using blowout preventers that are insufficiently designed to shut in blown out deepwater wells. I have been talking about this fatal flaw for months now. The industry and Gulf Coast politicians have been applying unrelenting political pressure on the government to let deepwater drillers go back to work, and it has rationalized its capitulation saying that the industry has demonstrated its ability to contain deepwater blowouts with new equipment designed to do that. That’s not really true, of course, since this new equipment is untested in real life conditions. Add this to the now well documented flawed BOP design, and we have another potential catastrophe on our hands.
I fully understand the many issues surrounding further delaying drilling the deepwater. Thousands of jobs hang in the balance and our dependence on foreign oil is expanding above already dangerous levels. Since our elected leaders have failed for over 40 years to establish a comprehensive energy policy, our need for deepwater development has become critical to allow us to maintain at least some control over our own energy destiny. The elephant in the room, though, is the now documented unreliability of subsea BOPs. It is an incontrovertible fact, and one that the industry will argue vociforously against, that we are going back to work in the deepwater with unsafe equipment. Since the government is issuing drilling permits anyway, it is critical that they be issued only to operators who have virtually unblemished track records in the deepwater. Thankfully, the first new drilling permit was issued last week to Shell, who represents the gold standard in deepwater operations. You’ll recall that during the height of the crisis last summer, BP’s decisions and design were unfavorably compared to those of Shell’s. Shell getting this first permit gives me some level of comfort, but it is just one of about a dozen deepwater operators. I’m not as comfortable with others.
Until we face the fact that we have been driven into the deepwater because of our lack of a national energy policy, and learn from the failures in the previous catastrophe, we are only doomed to repeat that very same catastrophe.
Bob Cavnar, a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, is the author of Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout. He is CEO of Luca Technologies.