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.