NEW ORLEANS – With everything Big Oil and the government have learned in the year since the Gulf of Mexico disaster, could it happen again? Absolutely, according to an Associated Press examination of the industry and interviews with experts on the perils of deep-sea drilling.
The government has given the OK for oil exploration in treacherously deep waters to resume, saying it is confident such drilling can be done safely. The industry has given similar assurances. But there are still serious questions in some quarters about whether the lessons of the BP oil spill have been applied.
The industry "is ill-prepared at the least," said Charles Perrow, a Yale University professor specializing in accidents involving high-risk technologies. "I have seen no evidence that they have marshaled containment efforts that are sufficient to deal with another major spill. I don't think they have found ways to change the corporate culture sufficiently to prevent future accidents."
He added: "There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong that major spills are unavoidable."
The worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history began with an explosion April 20, 2010, that killed 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig. More than 200 million gallons of crude spewed from the well a mile beneath the sea.
Since then, new drilling rules have been imposed, a high-tech system for capping a blown-out well and containing the oil has been built, and regulators have taken steps to ramp up oversight of the industry.
But deep-sea drilling remains highly risky. The effectiveness of the much-touted containment system is being questioned because it hasn't been tested on the sea floor. A design flaw in the blowout preventers widely used across the industry has been identified but not corrected. And regulators are allowing companies to obtain drilling permits before approving their updated oil-spill response plans.
After a monthslong moratorium, the Obama administration resumed issuing drilling permits earlier this year amid great pressure from the industry and lawmakers seeking to protect communities and workers whose livelihoods depend on drilling.
A petroleum industry group is creating a center for offshore safety in Houston to address management practices and improve industry communication. And the agency that oversees offshore drilling now bars inspectors from regulating a company that employs a family member or friend. Also, inspectors who join the agency from the oil industry cannot perform inspections of their former employers for two years.
BP says it is poised to become a much safer company. It ousted several key figures during the disaster — including CEO Tony Hayward — and created a powerful unit to police company safety. BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said that because of advances made during the crisis, "the capability exists to respond to a deep-water well blowout." Similarly, Chevron spokesman Russell A. Johnson said his company is "confident of our ability to prevent an incident similar" to the Gulf oil spill.
Whether any of that translates into better protection remains to be seen.
"I'm not an oddsmaker, but I would say in the next five years we should have at least one major blowout," Perrow said. "Even if everybody tries very hard, there is going to be an accident caused by cost-cutting and pressure on workers. These are moneymaking machines and they make money by pushing things to the limit."
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, oil producers including BP were criticized for errors in their federally required oil-spill response plans, such as severely underestimating the time it takes oil to reach shore.
Several of the biggest oil producers told the AP they have updated their response plans but are still waiting for them to be approved. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement said it is operating under a 2002 federal regulation that allows two years to approve such plans. In the meantime, companies are allowed to proceed with their drilling applications and obtain permits as long as they certify in writing that they can handle a spill, said agency spokeswoman Eileen Angelico.
The agency "is taking the oil companies' word for it that they can handle a spill," said David Pettit, a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, one of the nation's leading environmental groups. "This is the same kind of deference to claimed oil company expertise that led directly to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster."
Regulators, however, point out that operators have to provide significant supplemental data before permits are approved.
To bolster their case for safer drilling, the companies can point to a new system developed by industry titans including Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips to contain oil spills. The system includes a cap and a series of undersea devices — including cables, a riser and a piece of equipment that would pump dispersant. Lines would be hooked up to vessels on the surface.
Oil companies say the system is capable of quickly containing a blowout 8,000 feet under water and capturing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil per day. By comparison, at the height of the Gulf spill in mid-June, BP's well was spewing some 57,000 barrels a day at a depth of 5,000 feet.
Michael Bromwich, director of the U.S. agency that regulates offshore drilling, recently acknowledged that the system was not tested in a dynamic situation — meaning in the ocean or during blowout conditions. He said such testing would be ideal, but he was still confident the system would work.
Martin W. Massey, CEO of the Marine Well Containment Co., the consortium of companies that built the system, told the AP that components of the system were tested on land in Houston in a controlled environment, with government officials monitoring and approving it. He suggested that ocean testing was not necessary.
"We're quite confident," he said. "We're ready to respond. The system is ready to go."
The consortium has said an expanded network capable of plugging a well at more than 10,000 feet below the surface and collecting 100,000 barrels of oil per day won't be ready until early 2012.
Another piece of equipment that has come under new scrutiny is the blowout preventer.
In a report last month, a firm hired by the government to test the 300-ton device made by Houston-based Cameron and used with BP's ill-fated well said the device failed to pinch the well shut in part because of a design flaw that prevented it from cutting through a drill pipe that had been knocked off center.
Cameron is one of the biggest manufacturers of blowout preventers, so the finding has raised concerns that the devices may have to be overhauled across the board. No design changes have been announced since the finding, and a Cameron vice president defended the integrity of the blowout preventers at a federal hearing this month.
If oil reaches the surface and threatens land, response companies today would still rely on the same equipment and technology that failed to quickly protect land during the BP spill. Floating booms, for example, would still be put in place around sensitive marshes and beaches.
Bromwich said recently that some oil and gas companies continue to tell him they believe the Deepwater Horizon was an aberration belonging to one party — BP — and it could not happen to them.
"In my judgment, this is as disappointing as it is shortsighted," Bromwich said. "Our view is this was a broad problem."
Mohr reported from Jackson, Miss. Associated Press writers Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans and Dina Cappiello in Washington contributed to this report.
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