BP oil spill prompts US to mandate better blowout preventers on Gulf wells
Offshore oil drillers will need to invest more in some of the safety measures that will help prevent a catastrophic blowout like the one that toppled BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, according to new rules drafted by the U.S. Interior Department.
BP’s Macondo well erupted in April 2010, killing 11 workers, injuring several others, and setting off the biggest oil spill the U.S. had ever seen. One of the reasons the disaster occurred was the failure of the well’s blowout preventer (BOP) – a five-story device designed to regulate the force of oil and gas gushing up from the subterranean reservoir.
A properly functioning BOP, which sits atop the actual well, will shear the drill pipe in an emergency, effectively choking the well until it can be killed permanently.
Engineers working for the federal government have recommended a major redesign of blowout preventers, requiring them to have a primary shear ram to sever the well pipe and a secondary shear ram to back up the first one in case it fails.
BOPs are critical safety components because they provide the very last line of defense in stopping an out-of-control well from spewing oil into the sea. It is believed that BP’S blowout preventer failed because the shear ram was jammed when a section of the drill pipe was knocked out of alignment in the explosion. The device did not have a backup.
Roger McCarthy of the National Academy of Engineering, who investigated the BP blowout, told Bloomberg that some BOPs in use already have double shear rams, but that “Some of the units on the ocean floor today have all of the drawbacks of the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer.”
Tad Patzek, chairman of the Department of Petroleum & Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the Interior Department’s safety advisory body told Bloomberg that blowout preventers are a last resort and rig operators should have safety measures in place that ensure the devices will never be activated.
“Yes, it’s nice to have double rams,” Dr. Patzek told Bloomberg. “But the key is, you should never have to use them.”
According to Bloomberg, the federal government gave offshore drillers more time to comply with the new blowout preventer requirements by not including them in a series of safety standards adopted in 2010 after the BP oil spill released about 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Safety improvements already instituted include requiring drillers to have independent third-party verification that their shear rams can cut any drill pipe under maximum pressure and produce evidence that their systems have been maintained and inspected.
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