Murky truth be­hind US oil dis­as­ter

Judg­ment of politi­cians and bu­reau­crats from Obama down is ques­tion­able, writes Peter Bills

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

IN THE heav­ily pol­luted Gulf of Mex­ico, some fa­mil­iar sounds are missing. The noise from the mul­ti­ple oil rigs nor mally drilling deep into the wa­ters has gone. Far sad­der is the ab­sence of birds’ cries, many of them dead or dy­ing from the pol­lu­tion.

But up in Washington DC, an­other sort of fa­mil­iar sound has been deaf­en­ing, that of politi­cians try­ing to blus­ter and sal­vage their rep­u­ta­tions from a na­tional catas­tro­phe.

The blowout at the rig in the Gulf of Mex­ico on April 20 killed 11 peo­ple and caused the worst oil spill in US his­tory. Pres­i­dent Obama has sub­se­quently la­belled it “the great­est eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter” to hit the US.

The fall-out con­tin­ues in myr­iad ways. Oil still spews from the so-far un­capped pipe, al­beit at a far slower rate. In the courts, there is an­other type of fall-out. In the light of a judge this week re­scind­ing a tem­po­rary govern­ment ban on fur­ther drilling in the Gulf area, which had been suc­cess­fully chal­lenged by the oil in­dus­try, US In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ken Salazar in­ti­mated the US Govern­ment would change the law to pre­vent im­me­di­ate fur­ther drilling.

If only the US govern­ment had been as vig­i­lant be­fore April 20, this dis­as­ter might not have hap­pened. For the truth of this af­fair is now emerg­ing and the judg­ment and ve­rac­ity of many, from Obama to the US govern­ment to BP to reg­u­la­tory de­part­ments, is be­ing ques­tioned.

US me­dia out­lets have now con­ducted their own probes into oil ex­plo­ration. They have un­cov­ered a litany of shock­ing de­ci­sions, skimp­ing over safety and se­cu­rity is­sues and, al­legedly, in some cases a com­plete dis­re­gard for warn­ings and pre­vi­ous in­ci­dents.

The pub­lic rush by Obama to cas­ti­gate BP for its un­doubted fail­ings was the in­evitable re­ac­tion of a politician whose poll rat­ings have been on the slide be­fore this Novem­ber’s mid-term elec­tions. Yet the find­ings of the New York Times, which this week pub­lished an ex­ten­sive in­ves­ti­ga­tion, will not have made happy read­ing for the pres­i­dent. Oil and the US fit to­gether like a hand in a glove. Amer­ica has around 260 mil­lion cars, just about one for ev­ery mem­ber of the pop­u­la­tion. This ex­tra­or­di­nary num­ber equates to a ra­pa­cious thirst for oil.

Lit­tle won­der then that 33 rigs were drilling in the Gulf of Mex­ico alone prior to the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon rig dis­as­ter in April. And what in­crim­i­nates Obama, what re­veals his real philoso­phies on the en­tire is­sue of oil ex­plo­ration, is that three weeks be­fore the dis­as­ter he re­versed decades of of­fi­cial US govern­ment pol­icy on this vast in­dus­try.

Pres­i­dents of both po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions, Repub­li­can and Demo­crat, had re­fused per­mis­sion for oil ex­plo­ration in en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive ar­eas off the Amer­i­can coasts. Even the right-wing Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush, with all his as­so­ci­ates in big busi­ness in­clud­ing the oil world from his Texas home, re­fused to change this long-held pol­icy.

But Obama threw all that aside. He an­nounced that af­ter a year of study­ing the is­sue, he was sat­is­fied there were no ex­tra­or­di­nary risks and would al­low huge new ar­eas of ocean to be opened up for ex­plo­ration. Within a few weeks, fol­low­ing the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon ac­ci­dent, Obama did a U-turn and banned all such drilling – for the time be­ing.

Tes­ti­fy­ing to the US Se­nate com­mit­tee ear­lier this month, In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Salazar in­sisted, “It was the pres­i­dent’s di­rec­tive that we press the pause but­ton. It’s im­por­tant for all of you on this com­mit­tee to know that word – it’s the pause but­ton, not the stop but­ton.”

In other words, noth­ing will be al­lowed to stand in the way of Amer­ica and its con­stant de­mand for oil.

What has emerged, in essence, is that weak­nesses in the sys­tem were pa­pered over, re­ports about pre­vi­ous blowouts ei­ther glossed over or, at worst, com­pletely de­nied. It is al­leged the in­dus­try did not tell the govern­ment the re­al­ity and the gover nment, doubt­less mind­ful of Amer­ica’s ever-grow­ing need for oil, did not ask many, if any, pen­e­trat­ing ques­tions.

This led to the dis­as­ter of April 20. It is now clear that there had been ear­lier ques­tions whether the safety sys­tems put in place to deal with such an in­ci­dent would op­er­ate suc­cess­fully.

What went wrong deep in the dark wa­ters of the Gulf of Mex­ico on the night of April 20 was that the fail-safe sys­tem, so re­lied upon in the event of a blowout, failed to op­er­ate. A blowout is caused by the surg­ing gases that mix with the oil be­ing ex­tracted. Nor­mally, the gases can be con­trolled, the ex­cess gas burned off on the sur­face, through an ar­te­rial arm of the rig.

But in the case of a se­ri­ous in­ci­dent of this na­ture, a sys­tem is pro­vided to shut off the sup­ply of oil. The tech­ni­cal part cru­cial to this sec­tion is called a “blowout pre­ven­ter” and its key com­po­nent is the “blind shear ram”. The task of its twin metal blades is to slice through the pipe car­ry­ing the oil and shut it to­gether so it can then be bolted down into place, in the­ory seal­ing the leak­ing oil.

This part is ut­terly crit­i­cal to the en­tire drilling op­er­a­tion; it is the safety net of the whole job. If it fails to do its in­tended work or mal­func- tions in any way, rig op­er­a­tors would have a ma­jor spill and pol­lu­tion on their hands. Yet these blind shear rams, it emerges, can mal­func­tion for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. If, for ex­am­ple, an in­ter­nal pipe in the blowout pre­ven­ter splits or is in any way dam­aged, the hy­draulic fluid which drives the twin rams can leak, mean­ing the rams sim­ply will not work.

Ex­perts think this is why the twin rams failed to seal the spill in this case.

Prob­lems with the blowout pre­ven­ter and these rams are noth­ing new to those in the oil busi­ness, it turns out. Last year, Transocean, the rig op­er­at­ing com­pany work­ing with BP, com­mis­sioned a study on the re­li­a­bil­ity of the blowout pre­ven­ters. The re­port found that of 11 cases where crews on deep­wa­ter rigs had lost con­trol of the wells they were drilling and then ac­ti­vated blowout pre­ven­ters to pre­vent a spill, the fail-safe mech­a­nism had been ef­fec­tive in only six cases.

In other words, it was vir­tu­ally a 50-50 chance as to whether the safety back-up sys­tem would work. An­other prob­lem was that ex­am­in­ing and main­tain­ing these pre­ven­ters was a hugely costly ex­er­cise.

To halt the en­tire drilling pro­ce­dure and re­trieve the blowout pre­ven­ter from deep in the sea for check­ing and re­pairs, cost the op­er­a­tor a stag­ger­ing $700 (R5 296) per minute of in­ac­tiv­ity. Nat­u­rally, ma­jor com­pa­nies faced with such cat­a­strophic fi­nan­cial losses through drilling sus­pen­sion may not have been re­mov­ing these parts reg­u­larly.

Yet their his­tory sug­gests they should have been. Steve New­man, Transocean’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, ad­mit­ted his deep­wa­ter fleet had ex­pe­ri­enced “a hand­ful of prob­lems” with blowout pre­ven­ters. The New York Times charged this week, “An­other in­dus­try-fi­nanced study this year con­cluded that com­pa­nies cut cor­ners on fed­er­ally man­dated tests of blowout pre­ven­ters.

“A copy de­scribed a men­tal­ity of ‘I don’t want to find prob­lems; I want to do the min­i­mum nec­es­sary to ob­tain a good test.’ “ Yet when the re­port was fi­nalised, such crit­i­cisms were omit­ted.

But when things go wrong in these op­er­a­tions, the task of solv­ing any prob­lem is Her­culean. BP drills at stag­ger­ing depths, some­times as much as 10 000m down into the sea bed.

If the op­er­a­tors, anx­ious to make ever more new finds and ever more sub­stan­tial prof­its for its ex­ec­u­tives and share­hold­ers, knew of such dangers, it ap­pears that the US govern­ment had more than an idea, too.

The US Min­er­als Man­age­ment Ser­vice re­ceived com­mis­sioned stud­ies as far back as 2002 and 2004 that sug­gested the blind shear rams could well fail, thereby al­low­ing vast quan­ti­ties of oil to es­cape.

The cava­lier ap­proach to the crit­i­cal role of these parts was un­der­lined by tes­ti­mony last month to a US Coast guard in­quiry from Frank Pat­ton, an en­gi­neer in the New Or­leans of­fice of the Min­er­als Man­age­ment Ser­vice. Pat­ton had a life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence in this busi­ness and knew all about oil rigs and blowout pre­ven­ters.

“It (the blowout pre­ven­ter) is prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant fac­tor in main­tain­ing safety of the well and safety of ev­ery­thing in­volved; the rig and per­son­nel,” he said. Yet Pat­ton, who had re­viewed BP’s ap­pli­ca­tion for a per­mit to drill the Ma­condo well in the Gulf, ad­mit­ted that he had ap­proved the per­mit with­out de­mand­ing proof that the blowout pre­ven­ter could seal a well some 1 500m be­low the sur­face.

“When I was in train­ing for this, as far as I can re­call I was never ever told to look for this state­ment,” he said.

Even BP con­firmed that it had never been asked to pro­vide such proof and con­fir­ma­tion, a stag­ger­ing al­le­ga­tion against the Amer­i­can au­thor­i­ties and their lax pro­ce­dures for ap­prov­ing per­mits in so dan­ger­ous a field.

As the co-chair­man of the Coast Guard en­quiry com­mented icily, “So my un­der­stand­ing is that it (the safety de­vice) is de­signed to in­dus­try stan­dard, man­u­fac­tured by in­dus­try, in­stalled by in­dus­try with no govern­ment-wit­ness­ing over­sight of the con­struc­tion or in­stal­la­tion.”

The min­er­als agency’s re­gional su­per­vi­sor for field op­er­a­tions in the Gulf con­firmed, “That would be cor­rect.”

Whether it be a will­ing­ness by the op­er­a­tors to cut cor ners on safety stan­dards, to ig­nore po­ten­tial dangers and de­mand a reg­u­lar and rig­or­ous test­ing sys­tem no mat­ter what the cost, or blind ap­proval by gover nment agen­cies in a field where the strictest con­di­tions ought to have been manda­tory, no one emerges from this dis­as­ter with any credit.

The bill for BP will run into the tens of bil­lions of dol­lars, the cost to the US govern­ment in­cal­cu­la­ble. But per­haps the most apt ques­tion to be asked in the light of this ter­ri­ble dis­as­ter is whether any­thing will be dif­fer­ent next time.

Or will Amer­ica’s ut­terly in­sa­tiable de­mand for oil con­tinue to over­ride all other con­sid­er­a­tions?

PROBE: BP CEO Tony Hay­ward pre­pares to tes­tify on Capi­tol Hill in Washington, be­fore the House Over­sight and In­ves­ti­ga­tions sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing on the role of BP in the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon oil dis­as­ter.

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