Blowout preventer report could bring new designs


The finding that an off-center pipe blocked a blowout preventer from sealing BP’s Macondo well tightly enough to stop last year’s oil spill may prompt renewed calls for design changes in the devices intended as the last defense against disaster.

The government-backed forensic investigation found the blowout preventer’s blind shear rams — a pair of blades designed to cut through pipe in the well and seal it off in an emergency — activated as they should have at the time of the accident.

The shears failed, however, to cut completely through a section of drill pipe that likely moved when the well went out of control, leaving the pipe partially opened and spilling crude in one the nation’s most disastrous oil spills.

David Pursell, head of macro research for investment bank and research firm Tudor Pickering & Holt in Houston, said the report calls into question the fundamental design of the shear rams.

“It feels like your fail-safe equipment shouldn’t require optimal conditions to work,” said Pursell. “By the time you have to close the shear rams, you probably already have a suboptimal situation.”

Lawmakers began drawing up plans for improvements on blowout preventers, also called BOPs, soon after the blowout April 20 destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killed 11 workers and triggered the spill.

A measure that passed the House but died in the Senate would have mandated a second set of blind shear rams and redundant backup control systems to activate the rams remotely in case of an emergency

The remotely controlled switches apparently wouldn’t have mattered in the Macondo blowout since the shear rams did activate.

The Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement decided not to require dual shear rams immediately because of the time and costs associated with retrofitting the entire industry’s inventory, bureau Director Michael Bromwich told the Chronicle this year.

Rather, the bureau in October required a number of enhancements to BOP operations, including third-party verification that blind shear rams could cut through drill pipe, tests of the shearing systems and improved documentation.

Plans for strengthening BOP designs will come through the more deliberative regulatory process, Bromwich said.

Some in Congress want to move faster.

Doubts by congressman

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Wednesday’s report casts doubt on whether blowout preventers can ever be counted on, leading him to call for an immediate top-to-bottom inspection of the design and effectiveness of the devices used in U.S. waters.

“Now we know there could also be systemic design issues with blowout preventers that could cause them to be ineffective, even when deployed as intended,” Markey said in a statement.

The report likely won’t prompt the ocean energy bureau to further slow the pace of deep-water permitting.

Jeff Spittel, an analyst with Madison Williams, said it seems clear BOEMRE officials had some idea of the findings prior to the report’s release Wednesday, and wouldn’t have granted the handful of deep-water permits they have in the past month if they expected to halt the process again.

“Where it might be problematic is in the case of new exploration wells, where less is known about the pressure and other conditions,” Spittel said.

The industry has been making sturdier BOP designs a top priority since the spill, Spittel said.

Cameron International, the maker of the Macondo BOP, National Oilwell Varco and other manufacturers have units in development to handle greater well pressures than occurred in the Macondo blowout, Spittel said.

“The question is how quickly can they deliver them and how quickly will they have to,” Spittel said.

Salazar’s approach

Pursell said he has been frustrated with the pace of new deep-water permits since the spill, but in retrospect appreciates Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s approach to addressing the issue.

“If he wanted to take a hard line and say to industry, ‘You need to do a fundamental redesign of BOPs before there’s any more drilling,’ he could have,” Pursell said.

Fowler reported from Houston and Dlouhy from Washington.

Tom Fowler

8 Responses

  1. Deepercheaper says:

    roger1 is very close to being right, “the problem was not equipment “!

  2. roger1 says:

    Federal Minerals Management Services apparently did not read anything related to the BP Macondo Architecture. They approved blank sheets of paper and empty files. They did not inspect or witness any tests or procedures on the location. There was no enforcement of any existing offshore drilling rules by MMS.

    The federal government has not prosecuted anybody in BP or the MMS for anything. The problem is not equipment designs. A ‘new-improved’ BOP will not prevent: laziness, ineptitude, corruption, cost-cutting, sloppiness, negligence or moral-hazard in BP or the federal government.

    Thus, new drilling rules and equipment redesigns, do not address the problem.

  3. mhw089 says:

    The report also says that it is doubtful that the shear rams would have closed and sheared the pipe because it was under-designed for the pressures in the well at the depth it was operating at. The industry is criminally negligent.

  4. roger1 says:

    Typically, the pipe rams and/or annular preventer are closed when pipe is in the hole. The swivel is connected to the top ‘joint’ of drill pipe through two or more valves. This allows circulation of heavy mud through the drill string and back up the well annulus.

    The BOP ‘stack’ viewed from top down might have annular preventer, top pipe rams, blind rams and bottom pipe rams. Crews will normally close the pipe rams on pipe, so there is a pipe centering function built in there. The blind rams or blind-shear rams are generally only required to crush the pipe, as this destroys the mechanical strength and causes the pipe to break and fall.

    There is no design flaw, when used for the intended purpose. Really, just more BP created ‘smoke-screens’ to obscure their culpability for 11 criminally negligent homicides; and the largest oil spill in American history.

  5. roger1 says:

    These devices are blowout PREVENTERS. They are not designed or constructed to be blowout STOPPERS. BP continues to grasp at straws to dodge the overwhelming evidence of willful criminal negligence.

  6. Jim says:

    Read the report. The pipe was completely off center because it buckled under compression. The report said that the blind shear ram WOULD have worked if the pipe had only been a couple of inches closer to dead center. Obviously, blind shears need some type of centering device that is more effective than just having a “V” shape to the shear cutting head.

  7. lawaggie says:

    “Now we know there could also be systemic design issues with blowout preventers that could cause them to be ineffective, even when deployed as intended,” Markey said….What an nincompoop.

    From what I have read, it appears that the BOP worked as intended and within designed parameters. The drill pipe was knocked off center because personnel on location were incompetent and and failed to “read” the well.

    If the blind rams failed to shear the pipe as they say, then just replace them with “V” shape shears and add a second set.

  8. ntangle says:

    The remotely controlled switches apparently wouldn’t have mattered in the Macondo blowout since the shear rams did activate.
    How can anyone conclude that? It might also be a matter of WHEN they were activated.

    Since the BSR’s were activated by the AMF, it might’ve been as much as 2 days later when the hard line (hydraulics) was lost, as the rig sank. If the drill pipe was off center, it was either because of lateral strain by the rig going off station (after losing power), or because of a momentum kick from below by the suddenly intense fluid flow rate.

    What if the BSR’s could have been commanded via an alternate comm path, such as ultrasonic, after the explosion but before the rate maxed out and before the rig moved? Another advantage to an alternate comm path could’ve been the ability to read the BOP’s status, ie., did the rams close?, was there hydraulic pressure?, battery voltage?, etc., prior to sending the ROV’s down for the hot stab attempt.

    Frankly, I don’t understand the hesitation to use the BSR’s anyway when it was clear that the well was flowing. But that’s another matter.