Sunday, May 9, 2010

Offshore Drilling Outpaced Oil Industry's Safety Knowledge

McClatchy News Picture right - The offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon burns in the Gulf of Mexico shortly before it sank April 22, 2010. More McClatchy News photos. |

Over the past 15 years, oil companies have drilled deeper and farther into the Gulf of Mexico, taking on new risks in the hunt for new deposits of oil.

The dangers of deep water drilling are acute, where deep ocean currents combine with frigid temperatures and crushing pressures to make dangerous accidents more likely -- and much harder to fix.

Yet, oil industry's understanding of how deep water pressures affect drilling procedures and equipment, such as blowout preventers, have failed to keep pace as oil companies moved to deep water drilling.

TheYoungTurks — April 30, 2010

TheYoungTurks — May 06, 2010
Over the years those concerned about deep water offshore drilling have pointed to a series of warnings, malfunctions and near-misses.

Republicans have responded with ridicule and "drill baby drill" contempt to any suggestion by Democrats that oil companies were rushing unprepared and unregulated to offshore drilling leases.

Democrats are concerned about deep water offshore drilling because federal government and industry studies describe the industry's understanding for stanching a major deep water well blowout as "nonexistent with no guidelines or procedures for deep water blowout containment.

BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles announced in a press briefing announced Saturday that initial efforts to contain the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher with a 100-ton, four-story concrete-and-steel containment dome have failed - due to unforeseen developments.

The containment dome, known as a cofferdam, was lowered onto the leaking wellhead Friday, with the intent of pumping the leaking oil up a pipe to the sea surface a mile above.

After the containment dome was lowered onto the oil gushing wellhead, a slurry of "slush-like" methane hydrate crystals unexpectedly formed on the inside of the dome’s surface. The hydrate gave the dome positive buoyancy and clogged the oil outtake at the dome’s roof. Methane hydrate is natural gas that under the extreme pressure and low temperatures of the 5,000 foot deep ocean floor is compressed into a semi-frozen state. BP had not anticipated that methane hydrates could form within the containment dome at such a rapid rate.

The speed in which the containment chamber filled with hydrate is an indication that the oil flow out of the well could be much higher than the reported 5,000 barrels per day. The volume of oil flowing into the chamber would need be very high for the hydrate to form so quickly. Ian MacDonald, professor of oceanography at Florida State University who specializes in tracking ocean oil seeps from satellite imagery, estimates the daily rate to be 25,000 barrels of oil per day. Another scientist, John Amos, a geologist who has worked as an industry consultant, also says the more realistic number is 20,000 barrels per day.

The containment dome has been moved 200 meters from the disaster site, and is sitting on the sea bed as BP engineers attempt to work out a solution to the rapid methane hydrate formation within the dome.

That same methane hydrate has also been implicated in the oil rig explosion and fire when it "blew out" to the drilling platform surface in its natural gas form. The oil industry does seem to comprehend there are dangerous risks associated with deep water drilling that they do not understand. A publicly available Halliburton PowerPoint presentation from November 2009 contains the statement, "Destabilization of hydrates during cementing and production in deep water environments is a challenge to the safety and economics."

The dangers of deep water drilling have been laid bare by the Deepwater Horizon blowout and growing oil spill. Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard's highest-ranking officer, who was appointed by the Obama administration to take command of the containment effort, acknowledged from the outset that the options were limited by what he called "the tyranny of depth."

Republicans have pushed for years to lift a 1981 ban on offshore drilling, saying it will increase domestic oil supplies. Republicans also want to legalize drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

While advocating offshore and ANWAR drilling conservatives also pushed their agenda of downsizing government by reducing government's oversight role of industry, including the oil industry. Conservatives argue that industry self-regulation is preferable to government having a role in the regulation of business -- That would be socialist government.

We've seen this conservative anti-government agenda manifested in decreasing inspection of agricultural products, which resulted in a surge of food-borne illnesses. We've seen GOP Blind Faith In Unregulated Banks and Wall Street Markets Stoke Economic Crisis, a near-collapse of the U.S. and World economy and a deep recession. And now we that industry self-regulation policy at the root of the growing Deepwater Horizon disaster.

NYTimes:Regulator Deferred to Oil Industry on Offshore Rig Safety
Agency records show that from 2001 to 2007, there were 1,443 serious drilling accidents in offshore operations, leading to 41 deaths, 302 injuries and 356 oil spills. Yet the federal agency continues to allow the oil industry largely to police itself, saying that the best technical experts work for industry, not for the government.
Last year, BP, the owner of the well that blew in the gulf, teamed up with other offshore operators to oppose a proposed rule that would have required stricter safety and environmental standards and more frequent inspections. BP said that “extensive, prescriptive” regulations were not needed for offshore drilling, and urged the minerals service to allow it and other operators to define the steps they would take to ensure safety largely on their own.
U.S. Oil Regulator Ceded Safety Oversight to Drillers - - The small U.S. agency that oversees offshore drilling doesn't write or implement most safety regulations, having gradually shifted such responsibilities to the oil industry itself for more than a decade.
Instead, the Minerals Management Service—[for the most part still operating with conservative staff and policies installed during the Bush Administration]—sets broad performance goals for the industry. Oil producers and drilling companies are then free to decide for themselves how to meet those goals, industry executives and former regulators say.
Read more:
Deepwater Horizon Blowout - The True Story

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