Leaking Oil Well Lacked Safeguard Device

The same old story. Criminal neglect


Leaking Oil Well Lacked Safeguard Device

The oil well spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico didn't have a
remote-control shut-off switch used in two other major oil-producing nations
as last-resort protection against underwater spills.

The lack of the device, called an acoustic switch, could amplify concerns
over the environmental impact of offshore drilling after the explosion and
sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig, hired by oil giant BP PLC, last week.

BP's Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said Thursday on NBC's "Today"
that as much as 5,000 barrels of oil a day may be leaking into the Gulf, up
from original estimates of 1,000 barrels a day, matching calculations issued
late Wednesday from federal investigators. Mr. Suttles said BP and
government scientists have to estimate the flow based on what reaches the
surface because there is no way to measure the oil pouring out on the
seabed. The company also said it welcomes an offer of U.S. military help to
get the spill under control.

The accident has led to one of the largest ever oil spills in U.S. water and
the loss of 11 lives.

U.S. regulators don't mandate use of the remote-control device on offshore
rigs, and the Deepwater Horizon didn't have one. With a remote control, a
crew can attempt to trigger an underwater valve that shuts down the well
even if the oil rig itself is damaged or evacuated.

The efficacy of the devices is unclear. Major offshore oil-well blowouts are
rare, and it remained unclear Wednesday evening whether acoustic switches
have ever been put to the test in a real-world accident. When wells do surge
out of control, the primary shut-off systems almost always work. Remote
control systems such as the acoustic switch, which have been tested in
simulations, are intended as a last resort.

A worker looks over an oil boom as it collects oil from the leaking
Deepwater Horizon pipeline in the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster has been
sending 1,000 barrels of oil a day gushing into the sea.

Nevertheless, regulators in two major oil-producing countries, Norway and
Brazil, in effect require them. Norway has had acoustic triggers on almost
every offshore rig since 1993.

The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several
years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness,
according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the
Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, says it decided the
remote device wasn't needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off
a well.

The U.K., where BP is headquartered, doesn't require the use of acoustic

On all offshore oil rigs, there is one main switch for cutting off the flow
of oil by closing a valve located on the ocean floor. Many rigs also have
automatic systems, such as a "dead man" switch as a backup that is supposed
to close the valve if it senses a catastrophic failure aboard the rig.

As a third line of defense, some rigs have the acoustic trigger: It's a
football-sized remote control that uses sound waves to communicate with the
valve on the seabed floor and close it.

An acoustic trigger costs about $500,000, industry officials said. The
Deepwater Horizon had a replacement cost of about $560 million, and BP says
it is spending $6 million a day to battle the oil spill. On Wednesday, crews
set fire to part of the oil spill in an attempt to limit environmental

Some major oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell PLC and France's Total
SA, sometimes use the device even where regulators don't call for it.

A welder in Port Fourchon, La., worked Monday on part of a dome that might
be used to contain oil spilling from a well in the Gulf.

Transocean Ltd., which owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon and the
shut-off valve, declined to comment on why a remote-control device wasn't
installed on the rig or to speculate on whether such a device might have
stopped the spill. A BP spokesman said the company wouldn't speculate on
whether a remote control would have made a difference.

Much still isn't known about what caused the problems in Deepwater Horizon's
well, nearly a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. It went out
of control, sending oil surging through pipes to the surface and causing a
fire that ultimately sank the rig.

Unmanned submarines that arrived hours after the explosion have been unable
to activate the shut-off valve on the seabed, called a blowout preventer.

BP says the Deepwater Horizon did have a "dead man" switch, which should
have automatically closed the valve on the seabed in the event of a loss of
power or communication from the rig. BP said it can't explain why it didn't
shut off the well.

Transocean drillers aboard the rig at the time of the explosion, who should
have been in a position to hit the main cutoff switch, are among the dead.
It isn't known if they were able to reach the button, which would have been
located in the area where the fire is likely to have started. Another
possibility is that one of them did push the button, but it didn't work.

Tony Hayward, BP's CEO, said finding out why the blowout preventer didn't
shut down the well is the key question in the investigation. "This is the
failsafe mechanism that clearly has failed," Mr. Hayward said in an

Lars Herbst, regional director of the Minerals Management Service in the
Gulf of Mexico, said investigators are focusing on why the blowout preventer

Industry consultants and petroleum engineers said that an acoustic
remote-control may have been able to stop the well, but too much is still
unknown about the accident to say that with certainty.

Rigs in Norway and Brazil are equipped with the remote-control devices,
which can trigger the blowout preventers from a lifeboat in the event the
electric cables connecting the valves to the drilling rig are damaged.

While U.S. regulators have called the acoustic switches unreliable and
prone, in the past, to cause unnecessary shut-downs, Inger Anda, a
spokeswoman for Norway's Petroleum Safety Authority, said the switches have
a good track record in the North Sea. "It's been seen as the most successful
and effective option," she said.

The manufacturers of the equipment, including Kongsberg Maritime AS,
Sonardyne Ltd. and Nautronix PLC, say their equipment has improved
significantly over the past decade.

The Brazilian government began urging the use of the remote-control
equipment in 2007, after an extensive overhaul of its safety rules following
a fire aboard an oil platform killed 11 people, said Raphael Moura, head of
safety division at Brazil's National Petroleum Agency. "Our concern is both
safety and the environment," he said.

Industry critics cite the lack of the remote control as a sign U.S. drilling
policy has been too lax. "What we see, going back two decades, is an oil
industry that has had way too much sway with federal regulations," said Dan
McLaughlin, a spokesman for Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. "We are
seeing our worst nightmare coming true."

U.S. regulators have considered mandating the use of remote-control acoustic
switches or other back-up equipment at least since 2000. After a drilling
ship accidentally released oil, the Minerals Management Service issued a
safety notice that said a back-up system is "an essential component of a
deepwater drilling system."

The industry argued against the acoustic systems. A 2001 report from the
International Association of Drilling Contractors said "significant doubts
remain in regard to the ability of this type of system to provide a reliable
emergency back-up control system during an actual well flowing incident."

By 2003, U.S. regulators decided remote-controlled safeguards needed more
study. A report commissioned by the Minerals Management Service said
"acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly."

A spokesman for the agency, Nicholas Pardi, said the decision not to require
the device came, in part, after the agency took a survey that found most
rigs already had back-up systems of some kind. Those systems include the
unmanned submarines BP has been using to try to close the seabed valve.
?Jeff Fick and the Associated Press contributed to this article