Leaking Oil Well Lacked Safeguard Device in the Gulf

Infographic of the movement of oil in the gulf due to the failing rig in the BP oil spill.

Infographic of the movement of oil in the gulf due to the failing rig in the BP oil spill.

Originally published on the Wall Street Journal.

By RUSSELL GOLDBEN CASSELMAN And GUY CHAZAN

 

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 last week.

BP Oil Spill rig infographic

The accident has led to one of the largest ever oil spills in U.S. water and the loss of 11 lives. On Wednesday federal investigators said the disaster is now releasing 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf, up from original estimates of 1,000 barrels a day.

U.S. regulators don’t mandate use of the remote-control device on offshore rigs, and the Deepwater Horizon, hired by oil giant BP PLC, didn’t have one. With the 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.

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 triggers.

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 damage.

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