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Emergency Preparedness Lacking for Deepwater Oil Rigs

May 18, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Last week, the CEO of BP PLC, Tony Hayward, admitted the oil giant probably didn’t do enough to prepare for a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Now it appears that many operators of offshore drilling rigs could say the same.

This is a situation that’s existed – and been known about – for some time. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, managers of BP PLC had warned in 2004 that the company wasn’t prepared for the long-term, round-the-clock task of dealing with a deep-sea spill. As Deepwater Horizon illustrates, six years later, that still sums up BP’s level of preparedness.

It’s common across the industry. According to the Journal, while drillers have focused on the development of experimental technology that allows them to drill in deeper waters, they haven’t planned for trouble. What’s more, regulators haven’t mandated that they do so.

According to the Journal, deepwater drillers are working at ocean depths that no human can survive. Conditions at those depths – such as crushing pressure and freezing temperatures – make tackling an emergency particularly difficult. In many cases, the technology drillers rely on in an emergency has never been used before in such deep waters. While drilling in deepwater doesn’t really change the process, it does make everything harder, the Journal said.

One area that hasn’t really seen improvements since deepwater drilling was first pioneered 20 years ago is blowout preventer technology. Such equipment is supposed to prevent the uncontrolled flows of oil and natural gas like the one that brought down the Deepwater Horizon. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the blowout preventer for some reason failed to shear off the pipe and seal the gushing well.

According to the Journal, multiple technical papers have called into question whether the shears on current blowout preventers are powerful enough to cut through the tough steel necessary for the deepest wells. A 2004 study commissioned by federal regulators found that only three of 14 newly built rigs had shears powerful enough to cut through pipe at the equipment’s maximum water depth, the Journal said.

A 2007 paper co-authored by a BP engineer expressed similar concerns, according to The Wall Street Journal. “The use of higher strength, higher toughness drill pipe … has in some cases exceeded the capacity of some BOP (blowout preventer) shear rams to successfully and or reliably shear drill pipe,” it warned.

According to the Journal article, regulators haven’t done much to make deepwater drilling safer either. Many regulations currently on the books were written years ago, and focused on near-shore drilling operations. What’s more, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the government agency that oversees offshore drilling, recently stopped requiring specific safety plans for rigs, and instead set broad performance goals. The industry was allowed to determine how these goals should be met.

For example, MMS “highly encouraged,” but didn’t require, companies to have back-up systems to trigger blowout preventers in case of an emergency. Nothing was done on the part of MMS to enforce this recommendation.

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