Last-Ditch Deepwater Oil-Spill Guards Poorly Tested, Frequently Ineffective

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Photo: via Mother Jones

The Times takes an exhaustive look this week at the so-called "blowout preventers," complex devices that wrap oil pipes deep underwater, near where they emerge from the earth, and are designed to shut off leaks in the event of a catastrophe. Specifically, the paper looked at the effectiveness of "blind shears," contraptions that cut through pipes in times of emergency and seal them off. The shears have to create thousands of pounds of pressure to get through the tough metals of the pipes, and have to create a perfect seal. The devices are incredibly complex and contain many parts that can easily fail and render the enter machine ineffective. It's not that the oil companies and the government don't know about these risks — the devices have been tested many times over the past ten years — the problem is that the known problems weren't compensated for, and in the case of the Deepwater Horizon well currently gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a commonly installed backup blind shear wasn't even built.

These blind shears are "remarkably vulnerable," says the Times, and at 5,000 feet underwater, incredibly complicated to fix. As the oil spill worsened, before the Deepwater rig exploded, engineers frantically tried to engage, and then fix, their own failed shear. There would have been a second shear had the Minerals Management Service acted on one of their own studies, which revealed that two of the devices vastly increased the likelihood of avoiding a major spill. Studies in 2002 and 2004 revealed the following:

When the team examined the performance of blind shear rams in blowout preventers on 14 new rigs, it found that seven had never been checked to see if their shear rams would work in deep water. Of the remaining seven, only three “were found able to shear pipe at their maximum rated water depths.”


The Times study is full of a lot of very obscure facts and technology, and while it casts some blame on the "Obama administration," it's impossible to imagine that the president himself, or even anyone in the White House, knew anything about these subjects before April 20. Not that this matters when, as the evidence increasingly suggests, the government has systematically failed to protect us and the environment from exactly the disaster that unfolded so quickly this spring.

Lapses Found in Oversight of Failsafe Device on Oil Rig [NYT]