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Offshore oil industry faces a hard new world

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on May 16, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
May 14, 2010 6:18 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Think Three Mile Island. Think the Titanic. Think the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a game-changer on the same order.

For the offshore petroleum industry, there’s actually a kernel of hope in those comparisons. Passenger ships keep on plying the oceans, nuclear plants still produce much of the country’s power, and the United States kept on launching shuttles long after the Columbia burned on re-entry.

This country’s abject dependence on fossil fuels guarantees that offshore rigs will continue to pump crude from the ocean floor despite the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and left a huge expanse of petroleum spreading across the Gulf. The hard reality is that better energy technologies aren’t yet abundant or cheap enough to replace oil in the near future.

But for the petroleum industry, there’s no going back to the way things were.

The above-mentioned disasters all changed the paradigms. After Three Mile Island, the nuclear industry lost momentum for decades. After the Titanic, no one put blind faith in steel hulls. After the Columbia was lost, it was clear that space travel was still very dangerous and would likely stay that way.

Until April 19, offshore drilling in American waters had a seemingly impressive record. The last disastrous spill had occurred more than three decades earlier, in 1979. The companies that pumped oil from the seabed seemed remarkably competent at battling titanic natural forces thousands of feet below the surface.

Much was made of a supposed fail-safe device, the blowout preventer, designed to automatically squeeze off a well even if everything else went awry.

Everything else did go awry on April 20 at the Deepwater Horizon rig. Tests failed; assumptions were wrong; engineers let seawater into the pipeline too soon; too much methane blew up the line too quickly. A perfect illustration of Murphy’s Law: What can go wrong will go wrong, at the worst possible time.

Then the blowout preventer itself failed. Hydraulic fluid appears to have leaked from a loose fitting. A battery was dead. Amazingly, the device appears to have been jury-rigged with an inoperative test component in place of a shearing ram that was supposed to help crimp off the shaft.

Now the full story is coming out: Too little government oversight, too few inspections and regulations, drilling permits issued without environmental review, an oversight agency – the Minerals Management Service – with an exceptionally friendly relationship with the industry it was supposed to monitor.

As the oil keeps spreading, so will this scandal. Obviously, the debacle heightens the urgency of alternative sources of energy. More important for the immediate future, it cries out for a quick and thorough overhaul of the lax regulations this industry has long operated under.

A 2001 study, it turns out, identified up to 260 ways a blowout preventer might fail. Whoever was supposed to ensure the integrity of the Deepwater Horizon’s model didn’t get that message – or didn’t care.

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