Geology And Geophysics

How will the Gulf Oil Spill Affect Land Operations



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The BP Gulf oil spill should be a wake-up call for onshore operations. Oil spills, in-land or off shore, always negatively impact the environment and not just for the short term. While an oil rig may function in close proximity to humans and sensitive eco-systems, their threat is not much of a concern until something malfunctions and the toxic products they are extracting from the ground becomes out of control. It is only then that a community and its government become painfully aware of the need to insure that such a co-existence must establish standards to prevent harmful disasters.

The failure of the deepwater rig to control the flow of oil into the waters it was drilling after the fatal accident on April 20, 2010, drives home the need for all oil drilling rigs, including land-based operations, to assure the public that steps are being taken to prevent blowouts and smaller type leaks that can get into local water supplies. There is very little room for error when oil does escape its pipes and well holds. Contamination spills spoil not only water and air supplies, but denigrate local habitats and often costs taxpayers for any final clean-up expenses. 

One of the areas of concern with the BP blowout accident in the Gulf was the apparent failure of the fail-safe device known as a blowout preventer (BOP) from performing as designed. This high dollar mechanism is supposed to serve as the ultimate fail-safe device on oil rigs to prevent such disasters. Sadly though, these BOPs still have a checkered safety record. 

The device is capable of some 260 failure modes according to Transocean, the company that supplies off-shore oil rigs for petroleum companies like BP.  During a congressional hearing yesterday on possible causes for the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil well, Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan asked how such a device could be considered a fail-safe piece of equipment with so many potential points of failure. A report from the U.S. Mineral Management Services (MMS) has revealed that BOP devices “have failed or otherwise played a role in at least 14 accidents, mostly since 2005.” (“Rig had history of spills, fires before big one”, by Frank Jordans and Garance Burke, AP, 5/5/10)

Of equal concern is the training and qualifications of crew members and industry people who build and operate these rigs and are responsible for routine tests and inspections of safety equipment. In the aforementioned Stupak hearing it was discovered that “the blowout preventer that failed … had a dead battery in its control pod, leaks in its hydraulic system, a ‘useless’ test version of one of the devices that was supposed to close the flow of oil and a cutting tool that wasn’t strong enough to shear through joints that made up ten percent of the drill pipe.”

Furthermore, recent testimony from a regional supervisor, Mike Saucier, of the MMS, the government agency who is charged with enforcing safety practices for oil rigs and mines, revealed, among other surprising testimony, that “the government agency he works for doesn’t do any certification of blowout preventers, the massive devices that are supposed to be the final cut off of an out-of-control well.  [He] said most of the action MMS has taken to control blowout preventers has been through ‘notices to lessees,’ letters that go to drill operators but are not enforceable.” (Stupak stunner: Oil well’s blowout preventer had leaks, dead battery, design flaws, Climate Progress, 5/12/10)

The onshore oil rig and land-based refinery workers themselves were too frequently found to be poorly trained and over-worked to perform routine maintenance checks and testing on safety equipment. Following the release of an investigative report into the refinery explosions at BP’s Texas City explosion in 2005 and five years later at the Tesoro refinery in Salt Lake City, findings showed that “companies don't replace equipment enough or don't have systems in place to insure that pipes and machinery are in top order. Workers are fatigued or lack training. Accidents typically happen during or shortly after restarting equipment that has been taken offline for repairs or maintenance, and typically involve several things going wrong at once.” A total of 20 workers were killed at these two facilities with hundreds injured. (“Refinery tragedies all too often common”, by Craig Welch, Seattle Times, 4/3/10)

The on-shore operations for drilling and refining oil to meet consumer needs must react to the devastation of the on-going spill in the Gulf. Supporters may be able to point out that the track record for these operations have been good over the long haul but when such occurrences do happen they devastate the people and community they occur in for years and years. There is no need for the death and destruction that occurs at these work sites in most cases. An oil company’s bottom line should not eliminate those costs that insure safe and up-to-date equipment are properly installed and that their workers are well-trained and not over-worked. 

The huge sums they spend to lobby those government oversight agencies to dismiss such “costly” additions from their ledger sheet could easily be used as resources instead to do what is necessary and right for safe operations. A symbiotic relationship between the public and the private sector is necessary to benefit all parties. Hopefully the tragic blowout and continuing flow of oil into Gulf waters will send a strong signal to land based oil rigs and refineries and the government agencies that oversee them to take real and immediate action to prevent such death and destruction at onshore facilities.

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