Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Blowout Preventers that Don’t

“Blowout preventer” is on its way toward joining the ranks of all-star oxymorons.

Everyone knows by now that the blowout preventer at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site deep in the Gulf of Mexico prevented exactly nothing. Seven weeks after this “fail-safe” system failed, the nation’s worst environmental disaster just keeps getting worse and worse.

Then last Thursday, another blowout preventer, this one on dry land, failed to do its job at a natural gas well in northwestern Pennsylvania, allowing natural gas and polluted wastewater to erupt from a nearly-finished well for 16 hours. The well is one of hundreds being drilled from New York state to West Virginia in order to extract gas embedded in the Marcellus Shale formation deep underground.

And then just this morning (Monday, June 7) a natural gas well being drilled in West Virginia erupted in a gout of flame 70 feet high and was burning out of control. No word yet on whether its blowout preventer also failed, but don’t bet against it.

It’s beginning to look like a trend.

So just how often does it happen that blowout preventers don’t?

Christian Science Monitor reporter Mark Clayton unearthed on Sunday a 2009 reliability study that found that the massive devices, which are a stacks of supposedly redundant rams and valves designed to halt a blowout before it gets going, had failed 62 times during three years of testing in the Gulf of Mexico. The 62 failures were much less than 1 percent of the nearly 90,000 tests conducted, but we’ve seen what just a single failure can do. Authors of the study, paid for by industry with input from the U.S. Minerals Management Service, used the results to recommend less frequent safety testing of the devices. They said that would save companies $193 million a year.

Shall we compare that number to the ever-escalating cost of the Gulf disaster?

It turns out that this isn’t the first time that the devices’ reliability has been questioned. The Associated Press reported last month on records from the Minerals Management Service, which showed that blowout preventers had failed or been a factor in at least 14 accidents, mostly since 2005.

By the way, guess what didn’t work in 1979 when the Ixtoc oil well blew out off Mexico’s coast, triggering a nine-month spill that is still the largest in history? You guessed it.

It does make you wonder what sources BP President Tony Hayward was using when he said of the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer, “It’s unprecedented for it to fail.”

Something to think about when energy companies call for less regulation and less oversight as they sink untold numbers of new gas wells up and down the East Coast and contemplate a resumption, someday, of offshore drilling as well.

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2 Responses to “Blowout Preventers that Don’t”

  1. One of the most Unreported Parts Of Gulf Oil Spill is how “The Dick Cheney Policy” changed
    the requirements concerning the “blowout preventer”, though the other type of “blowout preventer” is required in many other countries,
    as they once were, here. The change allowed bp to save $500,000

  2. It’s clear from a lot of good reporting I’ve read that a wide array of regulations and safeguards were weakened, waived or just plain ignored as offshore drilling moved deeper and deeper offshore, to the point that an accident like this was probably inevitable. It was just a question of when and where. It reminds me of all the legal and regulatory changes that led up to the subprime mortgage mess and the financial meltdown. It’s not so much that we don’t learn from history. It’s that we learn and then forget.