Murky truth behind US oil disaster
Judgment of politicians and bureaucrats from Obama down is questionable, writes Peter Bills
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.