Sunday, May 09, 2010

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

"Probe of blowup in Gulf of Mexico oil spill is an important inquiry: An editorial
By Editorial page staff, The Times-Picayune
May 09, 2010, 6:46AM

BP is still trying to contain its Gulf of Mexico oil spill -- and that must remain priority No. 1 as the disaster enters its fourth week.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns and collapses into the Gulf of Mexico on April 22, two days after a blowout in its exploratory well.But federal investigators are about to launch another important task: public hearings to determine what went wrong at Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig. Their findings should inform a national debate on how to prevent similar disasters in the future.

Officials with the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service will begin the joint hearings this week. Already there are troubling questions about the role of BP, Transocean and other firms working at the well when it blew up April 20, killing 11 rig workers and unleashing environmental disaster.

Survivors are suggesting that prescribed safety procedures to cap the well were not being fully followed when the explosion occurred. An attorney for an eyewitness told The Times-Picayune that BP and Transocean started to remove a mud barrier in the well pipe before a final cement plug was installed, an account supported by assertions from workers involved in other lawsuits. Removing the mud prematurely would have weakened control of the well during an emergency.

BP declined to comment on the allegations.

The hearings should also shed light on the massive failure of the blowout preventer, a 450-ton series of valves manufactured by Cameron International and placed atop the well as the last line of defense against a blowout. Even though preventers have had documented troubles, including problems identified previously by BP and Transocean, the industry has considered the contraptions to be "fail-safe."

That clearly is not the case.

Finding out why the preventer in this particular case failed is not enough. Regulators must also examine the standards used to build and test the mechanism, and whether they are appropriate. The United States, for example, does not require the acoustic back-up system to activate the preventer that's required in Brazil, Canada and Norway.

Ultimately, the hearings should lead to important reforms to better prepare the oil industry and the government to respond to this type of massive failure in deep waters.

The failure of the federal levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina exposed how the Corps of Engineers failed to account for residual risks in the system, essentially assuming that it was infallible. The oil industry and regulators did the same when it came to blowout preventers.

And that doomed the Deepwater Horizon."