On June 5, 2014, the Chemical Safety Board releases a two-volume report shedding new light on the cause of the Gulf oil spill. Agency investigators say the blowout preventer failed when a long drill pipe running from the rig down into the ocean floor buckled under high pressure coming up from the oil reservoir. In addition, the agency found U.S. regulations governing offshore safety -- even new rules set after the 2010 oil spill -- do not address many key safety devices.
Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press
On May 21, 2014, BP announces that it will take the courtroom fight over its multibillion-dollar oil spill settlement to the Supreme Court. The London-based oil company argued that it has paid potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to claimants who were not affected by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, violating its interpretation of the $9.2 billion settlement it reached with plaintiffs’ attorneys in 2012.
[Photo: People walk on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.]
On May 20, 2014, a federal judge rules that some BP investors can form a class to sue the company over allegations it misled shareholders on how much oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The ruling followed the investors’ second bid to gain class certification needed for a securities lawsuit over allegations BP executives played down the amount of oil spewing from its blown-out Macondo well in early days of the 87-day disaster.
Seth Perlman / Associated Press
On April 21, 2014, a federal court sets Jan. 20, 2015 as the first day of the penalty phase of BP’s civil trial over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The penalty phase, during which U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier will listen to testimony from BP and government attorneys over the British oil company’s liabilities in the spill, will end around Feb. 5 next year, the court said.
Dave Martin / AP
On April 17, 2014, the Coast Guard cries foul over BP’s claim that active cleanup efforts to remove oil along the Gulf Coast shorelines have ended, saying the process is “far from over.”
[Photo: Mickal Vogt of Covington, La., uses a stick to place tar balls in a jar that washed up on the shore in Orange Beach, Ala., Saturday, June 12, 2010. ]
Tech. Sgt. Adrian Cadiz / AP
On April 15, 2014 -- nearly four years after the Gulf oil spill -- BP declares an end to cleanup operations that cost the company $14 billion and once covered 778 miles of shoreline on the Gulf Coast. The Coast Guard had finished its last patrols of the three remaining miles of beach that had been soaked in oil after a blowout at BP’s Macondo well blew out.
[Photo: In May 2010, ships move an oil boom into place near Cat Island off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi as part of Deepwater Horizon oil spill response.]
In March 2014, BP reaches a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to end its 16-month suspension on doing business with the government. The deal allowed BP to bid on new drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in nearly two years.
[Photo: BP repairs its Mad Dog rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2012.]
Jonathan Bachman / Associated Press
Kurt Mix, center, arrives at the Hale Boggs Federal Building in New Orleans. The former BP drilling engineer was convicted Dec. 18, 2013 of one charge that he deleted text messages from his cellphone to obstruct a federal investigation of the company’s massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gerald Herbert / Associated Press
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh leaves Federal Court after meeting with U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who appointed Freeh to investigate alleged misconduct by a lawyer who helped run BP's multibillion-dollar settlement fund for the Gulf oil spill. Freeh recommended Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, that the Justice Department investigate whether several lawyers plotted to corrupt the settlement program designed to compensate victims of BP's 2010 Gulf oil spill.
Gerald Herbert / Associated Press
Steve Newman, president and CEO of Swiss-based Trancocean Ltd., leaves Federal Court after testifying in New Orleans, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. Transocean was the owner of the rig Deepwater Horizon, which was being operated under contract to BP when BP's Macondo well blew out on April 20, 2010, setting into motion events that led to the nation's worst offshore oil spill. The Deepwater Horizon sank two days after the blow out.
Gerald Herbert / Associated Press
Lamar McKay, former president of BP America and current chief executive of BP's Upstream unit, leaves Federal Court after testifying in New Orleans, Monday, Feb. 25, 2013. McKay, who was president of BP America at the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, became the first BP executive to testify at the federal trial intended to identify the causes of BP's Macondo well blowout and assign percentages of blame to the companies involved.
Contributed Photo / Contributed Photo
A report by the National Wildlife Federation finds that the 3-year-old BP spill is still having a serious negative effect on the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico and its wildlife populations. Pictured: Smoke billows over a controlled oil fire off the coast of Venice, La., on May 5, 2010.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
An activist holds a sign during a protest in front of the Hale Boggs Federal Building on the first day of the civil trial over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil rig spill on February 25, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Eleven men were killed during the accident and over 4 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Activists holds signs during a protest in front of the Hale Boggs Federal Building on the first day of the civil trial against BP in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill on Monday, Feb. 25, 2013.
Robert Kaluza, a BP well site leader from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, talks with his attorneys Shaun Clarke, left, and David Gerger, right, as they enter Federal Court before he is arraigned on manslaughter charges in New Orleans on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012.
Robert Kaluza, a BP well site leader from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, enters Federal Court before he is arraigned on manslaughter charges in New Orleans on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012.
David J. Phillip/AP
BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells rubs his eyes while testifying during the Deepwater Horizon joint investigation hearings Aug. 26, 2010. The hearings were held by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Management, Regulation and Enforcement in Houston .
Demonstrators hold up signs on Capitol Hill in Washington on Monday, May 17, 2010, as BP America Chairman and President Lamar McKay, right, waits his turn to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to assess the nation's response to BP PLC's Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari
A Capitol Hill police officer arrests Diane Wilson on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 17, 2010. BP CEO Tony Hayward was testifying before the Energy and Environment subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on the role of BP in the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.
Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle
A protester's sign lies outside a meeting where residents were able to get face-to-face time with BP and government officials at one of a series of open houses in New Orleans on June 23, 2010.
John Moore/Getty Images
The letters BP, inscribed in sand and oil by a Greenpeace activist, are shown on a beach at the mouth of the Mississippi River on May 17, 2010 near Venice, La.
James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle
Melanie Driscoll, director of Bird Conservation for the Louisiana Coastal Initiative, holds up oil residue on April 8, 2011. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries gave a press tour to show the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Port Sulphur, La.
Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle
A cleanup worker, wearing a protective coverall and carrying a small scoop, punctuates an otherwise typical holiday beach scene as patrols the beach looking for tar balls on Independence Day 2010.Tourist business along the Gulf Coast all reported feeling the sting of lost income from a noticeable dip in tourism the summer following the Deepwater Horizon spill.
A member of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's staff reaches into thick oil on the surface of the northern regions of Barataria Bay in Plaquemines Parish, La. on June 15, 2010.
Crude oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill washes ashore in Orange Beach, Ala. on June 12, 2010. Large amounts of the oil battered the Alabama coast, leaving deposits of the slick mess some 4 inches to 6 inches thick on some parts of the beach.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
A brown pelican stained with oil takes flight while a bird rescue team tries to capture it for cleaning on June 5, 2010 in Grand Isle, Louisiana.
Patches of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill are seen underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, south of Venice, La., on Monday, June 7, 2010.
Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle
A boat is surrounded by oil near the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill on Tuesday, June 15, 2010.
A shrimp boat is used to collect oil with booms in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La.
People gather near crosses for the 11 workers who died in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, during a vigil to mark the first anniversary of the BP oil spill on a beach in Grand Isle, La.. The large cross in the center is for the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil floats in the waters of Chandeleur Sound, La. two weeks after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill floats on the water as the sky is reflected in sheen on Barataria Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on June, 7, 2010.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip.
U.S. Coast Guard
Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010. The blowout in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and sent 4.9 million barrels of oil gushing from the sea floor into the Gulf.
HOUSTON – Four years after the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, federal investigators shed new light Thursday on why a key safety device failed to stop a blowout at BP’s Macondo well.
In a two-volume draft report, the Chemical Safety Board said the problem started when an unexpected burst of pressure from the reservoir, called a kick, occurred around 8:45 p.m. on April 20, 2010. A long drill pipe running from the rig down into the ocean floor buckled under the high pressure coming up from the oil reservoir. The drill pipe bent and curved, making it impossible for a final fail-safe system in the safety device, called a blowout preventer, to cut the pipe and seal the Macondo well.
The blowout caused an explosion on Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon killing 11 workers and causing oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. The rig lost power and burned for two days before it sank into the ocean.
The CSB, which typically examines the root causes of accidents at refineries and chemical plants, said the pressure behind the buckling drill pipe is a danger that neither regulators or the industry have considered before, leaving other rigs vulnerable as the threat of faulty blowout preventers remains undetected. The agency said it had access to data on the blowout preventer that other federal probes into the disaster did not, enabling it to form new conclusions about what went wrong with the device.
The CSB concluded that U.S. regulations governing offshore safety — even new rules set after the 2010 oil spill — do not address many key safety devices. U.S. regulators could, like other governments, beef up those protocols, the CSB concluded.
“What these technical findings and conclusions mean for industry is that the buckling of the drill pipe can actually occur when the well is successfully shut in by the drill crew, and remain undetected,” said Cheryl MacKenzie, team lead investigator on the Deepwater Horizon incident for CSB, during a press conference in downtown Houston on Thursday. “Similar deficiencies identified in the Deepwater Horizon BOP could remain undetected in BOPs today.”
The agency said it conducted interviews and collected nearly 1 million documents from 24 companies and other entities.
Conclusions in the report are not considered final and are only to help determine the agency’s potential recommendations to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the American Petroleum Institute, two key bodies that oversee and influence the U.S. offshore industry.
Miswirings and battery failures
The findings could also overturn the prevailing theory that the two sharp blades within the blowout preventer, designed to seal a well in an emergency, were not activated until two days after the accident. The blades, known as “blind shear rams,” likely were activated on the night of the spill, said Mary Beth Mulcahy, an investigator for the CSB.
A miswiring disabled the blowout preventer’s control system, which was designed to activate the shear ram in an emergency. A separate miswiring caused another battery failure on an identical, redundant control system, but the two battery failures “canceled each other out.” That second battery failure triggered a shearing blade inside the blowout preventer, which attempted to cut the pipe. But it was unsuccessful because the drill pipe had been bent.
In the report, the CSB said the blowout preventer had been miswired before it was ever set on the sea floor, paralyzing certain key functions. Houston-based Cameron International manufactured the device and Swiss rig contractor Transocean owned it.
“Neither Transocean nor BP treated the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer as a safety critical element,” the agency said in a written statement accompanying the report. “The component of the DWH blowout preventer meant to shear and seal the well was not suitable for the Macondo drilling operation, as it could not reliably shear the drill pipe.”
The CSB’s new findings show that as reservoir pressure climbed in the drill pipe, a mechanism called effective compression – pressure that can create curves in drill pipe that are invisible to the naked eye – elongated part of the pipe and bent it out of shape. The pipe fell off center inside the blowout preventer, and could not be cut by shear ram blades that would.
The Deepwater Horizon crew had managed to shut in the well with a pipe ram and prevent oil and gas from climbing up the riser, but not before the substances had escaped and eventually ignited at the rig. The drill pipe burst sometime after the last safety mechanism in the blowout preventer failed.
BP spokesman Geoff Morrell said CSB’s theory that the automatic emergency system worked despite the blowout preventer’s maintenance deficiencies “is based on flawed assumptions.”
“These theories ignore the physical evidence and testing performed during the BOP’s forensic examination and are contrary to the conclusions reached by other investigations,” he said. “Moreover, no party other than Transocean has ever concluded that the (emergency safety systems) worked despite the maintenance deficiencies.”
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The report comes amid legal challenges from Transocean, which had fought court battles to prevent certain data from getting into the agency’s hands. A federal judge in Houston ordered the rig contractor to hand over certain documents last year.
A federal judge in New Orleans could rule at any time on several factors that could determine how much BP owes in environmental fines, up to $18 billion. The London-based oil company has already set aside $42.7 billion to pay for oil spill costs.
Morrell said in an emailed statement the agency found “the Deepwater Horizon accident was the result of multiple causes, involving multiple parties, including Transocean.”
“Transocean, which owned the rig’s blowout preventer and was responsible for its maintenance, failed to, among other things, properly maintain the BOP and control the well,” Morrell said.
Transocean spokesman Brian Kennedy said the CSB report confirms the blowout preventer had been tested properly and had activated during the accident, “but was unable to seal the well because immense pressure buckled the drill pipe and prevented the blind shear ram from functioning as designed.”
“We respectfully disagree with other findings in the report, including and especially the CSB’s assertions regarding Transocean’s operational and safety culture,” he said.
‘Omits significant facts’
Other agencies and federal bodies, including a specially appointed commission, the Department of Interior and the U.S. Coast Guard, had investigated the oil spill more than a dozen times before the CSB’s report.
“There is nothing here that hasn’t already been exhaustively addressed by regulators and the industry,” said Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute. “The report appears to omit significant facts and ignores the tremendous strides made to enhance the safety of offshore operations. Offshore drilling is safer today because industry and the government have enhanced spill prevention, containment and response, implemented new standards and rules, and focused on strong safety culture.”
The report also follows new regulations that require weekly testing of blowout preventers. But CSB says some tests could mask deficiencies in individual components because they rely heavily on redundant systems.
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David Smith, a spokesman for the BSEE, said after the oil spill, the Obama Administration launched ” the most aggressive and comprehensive reforms to offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight in U.S. history” in an effort to bolster requirements from well design to workplace safety and corporate accountability.
The new set of rules “supports standards that emphasize a culture of safety, the development of oil spill response plans, enforcement of approved leases, plans and permits, and investments in the latest scientific research to enhance safety, reduce risk and keep pace with industry technologies,” Smith said.
In testing emergency safety systems within blowout preventers, the CSB noted that the many fail-safe systems masked failures of individual components of the device’s control systems. But testing those parts are not currently required by regulators, and similar deficiencies could be found in blowout preventers currently deployed to well heads.
Before the spill, regulators did not require operators to test emergency safety systems known as AFM/deadman systems, which activated the ram shear blades within the blowout preventer before the oil spill in 2010. The agency said it found deficiencies in those systems that escape even new required tests and that could affect units currently deployed.
Future volumes of the CSB’s report will look at the role of the U.S. regulator in the offshore industry, comparing it to other regulatory regimes across the globe, the agency said.
Michael Bromwich, former director of the BSEE, said the report comes after a number of earlier accounts “that served as the basis for meaningful regulatory and organizational reform in real time.”
“The (CSB) report finds a niche by focusing in great detail on the deficiencies of blowout preventers and on improvements that can be made in the government’s performance-based safety regulations,” he said. “If this focus stimulates continuing discussion on these issues, the report will have served a useful purpose.”