Geology And Geophysics

What Measures are used to Prevent Catastrophic Oil Leaks

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The reality is that there is very little new under the sun when it comes to fail safe devices for oil rigs should an emergency or catastrophic failure of surface or sub-sea equipment occur.  What does exist has not been all that foolproof under varying conditions to contain a “Blowout”.   A blow out is an “uncontrolled flow of reservoir fluids into the [oil or natural gas] well bore, and sometimes catastrophically to the surface. A blowout may consist of salt water, oil, gas or a mixture of these” (Oil/Gas Glossary)

In a syndicated article from the Miami Herald newspaper yesterday it was reported that “One federal study from 2004 described the industry's options for staunching a major well leak as ‘nonexistent."   The same study also revealed that the oil industry practically has “no guidelines or procedures for blowout containment in ultra-deep water.''

Regarding the industry's support of the effectiveness of what fail-safe devices they use, the syndicated report noted that “Robert Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California-Berkeley with decades of experience in offshore drilling design and accident investigation, believes the industry - at least in the United States - has bought too much into its own high-tech hype.” (“Risk-taking production companies not as aggressive with safety measures”, By Curtis Morgan and Scott Haaisen, McClatchy Newspapers, 5/8/10)

What devices are used by the industry to prevent the kind of catastrophic oil leaks that recently occurred at the off-shore BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico?  There is the conventional shut-off valve at the top of the well head referred to as a “Christmas tree”; supposedly getting its name from its very rough appearance of this familiar holiday icon.  It usually consists of two or three manually operated gate valves.

More sophisticated “trees” will have up to five separate valves with the lower “master valve” operated manually and the others are hydraulically actuated.  These other valves serve separate functions that have less to do with controlling the flow into or out of the well of gas or oil; serving other functions “including chemical injection points, well intervention means, pressure relief means  [on well vents] and tree and well monitoring points.” (Wikipedia – Christmas tree function)

The other and more contemporary piece of equipment intended to serve as the main fail safe for oil rig emergencies is a “down-hole” device that’s designed to “control systems associated with safety valves [and] are generally set in a fail-safe mode, such that any interruption or malfunction of the system will result in the safety valve closing to render the well safe.”(Oil Gas Glossary)  Though they are usually found on most wells, they are essential on off-shore rigs drilling in deepwater.  These down-hole devices are often referred to as Blow out Preventers (BOPs) and it was this piece of equipment on the British Petroleum rig, connected at the bottom of the well at the sea floor, that failed to perform as designed.

Though they can be found to be huge in dimension, standing as high as 50 ft, there are smaller versions that can be set at the top of the well head.  Land rigs and shallow water off-shore rigs tend to avoid installing a BOP at lower levels feeling that it is not practical, already having a similar device at the platform level.  Furthermore, these BOPs can be remotely operated with what’s called an acoustic switch and thus activated if necessary by crew members at sea level using a broadband wave length.   “It lets oil rig operators control seafloor shutoff valves from a life raft, even after an emergency evacuation.  The Wall Street Journal said that it was unclear whether acoustic switches had ever been tested in a real-world accident, saying they were intended as a last resort.” ('Unnecessary' fail safe left off NZ oil rig’, NZHerald, By Michael Dickison, 5/5/10)

According to the Miami Herald, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), that agency within the U.S. Dept. of Interior created to monitor mines and oil rigs, has spent a ton of the tax payer money on research to find ways of improving “oil containment and propos[ing] added safety measures to deal with deep water accidents - from backup blowout systems to robotic tractors - but most of the ideas remain on the shelf.”  The MMS has also been accused over the years of being too cozy with the oil industry and overlooking needed safety practices within the industry, especially with the greater threats of deep water drilling.

The Oil giants in the industry, including BP, have made record profits over the last few years but R&D for improved fail-safe measures have not benefited from these financial gains.  Industry leaders conceded as much in a paper presented at a conference seven years ago.  ‘At times, it appears the industry attitude is that we cannot afford R&D in advance of a defined need,’ wrote the authors, among them an executive with Transocean, Ltd., the offshore drilling contractor that owned the Deepwater Horizon.” (‘As oil wells went deeper, safety measures didn't get tougher’, Miami Herald by Curtis Morgan & Scott Haaisen, 5/8/10)

It remains to be seen, following this latest tragic accident from off-shore drilling, whether the oil industry and our government will take the measures like those in Norway and Brazil to insure that oil rigs will have the safest emergency equipment along with routine inspections of such equipment to prevent spills of any size.  The costs are not only prohibitive to a company’s bottom line when such accidents occur but endanger the economies that they work around and among as well as threaten the safety of wildlife habitat and those species who occupy them.

More about this author: L.B. Woodgate

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