Dangerous and short-tempered subterranean gases have erupted to
kill 29 oil drillers since 1979, and despite repeated recommendations aimed at quelling blowouts,
years and even decades have passed as accidents continued unabated.
The Houston Chronicle reviewed 66 blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico —
one of the most dangerous places on Earth to drill for oil — and
found that time and again, federal investigators' calls for improvement
were either largely ignored or delayed amid industry consternation.
In the last 10 years, blowouts triggered explosions on five rigs in the
Gulf, a minefield of Mississippi mud deposits, and caused the evacuation
of 17, according to the Chronicle's examination of scores of documents.
Blowouts, known technically as "loss of well control incidents,"
range in seriousness from slow old leakers to explosive killers that can
open the earth and swallow a rig while spewing gas, drilling mud, water
vapor, sand and oil.
There are so many man-made holes in the Gulf, 50,000, that the government
has lost track of at least 4,500 old wells, records show.
And preventing blowouts may be more difficult than curbing airline disasters.
Unlike airplanes, no two wells are alike. Building an oil well is like
building a ship in an opaque bottle, threading massive pipes and intricate
tools through a dark, narrow hole.
Documents show the top two causes of blowouts are failed cement jobs and
surprise encounters with shallow gas pockets. Also common are well-design
mistakes and poor maintenance.
Yet, solutions have been elusive, according to records.
"The administrative process has gotten extremely burdensome,"
said Alan Spackman, vice president of the International Association of
Drilling Contractors, adding that it takes too long for the government
to change regulations. Spackman once worked as a Coast Guard marine safety officer.
Jo Ann Freeman needs no convincing. Her husband, Ben Freeman, 61, was killed
in 2001 even as oil executives and government bureaucrats pondered for
years an equipment requirement that might have saved his life.
Freeman told his wife as he headed for the waters off the Texas coast that
he was "going to a bad job." During his second week on location
aboard the jack-up rig Marine IV, the crew encountered natural gas 90
feet sooner than expected 26 miles off Surfside Beach.
Shortly before dawn, hell blasted up the drill pipe.
Thirty-nine crew members drifted in escape capsules before noticing Freeman
was missing. He was last seen helping others down slippery stairs, and
his body was never found. Over 35 years, Freeman had risen from roughneck
to high-paid consultant.
Mineral Management Services records show the blowout preventer failed because
a section of drill pipe jammed inside it, preventing it from closing over
the gas geyser. The blowout preventer lacked a "blind shear ram"
specifically designed for such jams.
When it works properly, the shear ram cuts through most pipe jammed in
a BOP so it can control a wild well.
During the 25 years leading up to Freeman's death, shear rams might
have prevented a dozen other blowouts that caused nine deaths, records
show. As a result, federal agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard and
MMS on six occasions had recommended requiring them on rigs like the Marine IV.
Fight over shear ram rule
The oil industry successfully opposed it, citing costs and worries that
shear rams might hamper other well-control efforts or cut pipe needlessly.
Even after Freeman died, the peril continued.
Nineteen months later, 600 feet of steel tubing jammed a BOP during an
Anadarko operation. An Anadarko spokesman said the BOP complied with federal
regulations, even without a shear ram. Again, MMS accident investigators
recommended requiring them.
Not until 2006 did the shear ram become the rule.
"Certainly in hindsight it makes sense," admitted Spackman, whose
group opposed it at the time.
In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, Spackman and others
say more rule changes are needed. Upgrading blowout preventers isn't
enough, he said, because "when you get to the point of using it,
a lot of other things have gone wrong."
A cementing failure likely contributed to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
MMS attempted in 2000 to create new regulations to prevent cementing failures,
but records show it faced opposition from the Offshore Operators Committee,
representing 70 companies in offshore exploration and oil and gas production.
OOC executive director Allen Verret wrote at the time: "We have serious
reservation with MMS prescribing any type of 'Best Cementing Practices.' "
Verret told the Chronicle the industry prefers guidelines to prescriptions:
"It hasn't been uncommon for there to be some sort of knee-jerk
reaction by government. They throw a lot of stuff at the wall. Some sticks
and some doesn't."
The other leading cause of Gulf blowouts, the shallow gas problem, has
plagued drillers for 50 years. Gases roam the Gulf's subsea geology,
moving from crevice to crevice, launching surprise attacks on drillers
who don't detect them before starting operations. The vapors change
locations because of natural forces and even drilling activities.
Crater swallows ship
The hazard hit the headlines back in 1964, when a blowout near Louisiana
set fire to the C.P. Baker drill ship and opened a crater that literally
swallowed it. After C.P. Baker, devices were required on rigs that divert
gases safely out to sea, away from the machinery.
However, certain pre-drill tests weren't required on wells planned
near existing holes on the theory the hazards would be clear, though MMS
repeatedly recommended conducting them.
A Chevron crew was surprised by shallow gas in April 2003, just 100 feet
from the tracks of four previous wells. Records show shallow gas caused
or contributed to 10 blowouts in the last decade.
In 2001 and 2002, two rigs were set ablaze in 18 months, one a BP operation
and the other Forest Oil. Both companies declined comment.
The government sent out a notice to oil field lessees calling for more
testing in 2008, 44 years after C.P. Baker.
A 2008 Chevron blowout appears in hindsight to have been a rehearsal for
Deepwater Horizon and its design problems. Like BP, Chevron was in the
final stages of drilling a well aboard Transocean rig Discoverer Deep
Seas. A blowout spewed 500,000 gallons of drilling mud onto the ocean floor.
Afterward, Chevron adopted its own well-design guidelines for deepwater
operations - guidelines that might have prevented the Macondo well disaster
had BP adopted them. Key was a casing pipe, or "tieback string,"
not employed on Macondo, that provides superior barriers against blowouts,
But federal regulators did not issue a safety alert to other companies.
Maintenance woes afflict wells of all types. On a modern deepwater BP well
in May 2003, the entire riser pipe, which connects the floating rig to
the wellhead, broke apart because of a failed joint, reports say.
Because of that close call with a blowout, MMS investigators recommended
twice-a-year thorough inspections of deepwater risers, rather than one.
No such change has been made to the industry standard, according to the
American Petroleum Institute.
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