The mobile offshore drilling unit Q4000 holds position directly over the damaged Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer as crews work to plug the well head using a technique known as "top kill," May 26, 2010. (Photo: Ann Marie Gorden / US Coast Guard)
Washington - A decade ago, U.S. government regulators warned that a major deepwater oil spill could start with a fire on a drilling rig, prove hard to stop and cause extensive damage to fish eggs and wetlands because there were few good ways to capture oil underwater.
The disaster scenario — contained in a May 2000 offshore drilling plan for the Shell oil company that McClatchy has obtained — is now a grim reality in the Gulf of Mexico. Less predictably, perhaps, the author of the document was the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, the regulatory agency that's come under withering criticism in the wake of the BP spill for being too cozy with industries it was supposed to be regulating.
The 2000 warning, however, indicates that some federal regulators were well aware of the potential hazards of deepwater oil production in its early years, experts and former MMS officials told McClatchy.
Yet over the past decade, the risks faded into the background as America thirsted for new oil sources, the energy industry mastered new drilling technologies and the number of deepwater wells in the Gulf swelled into the thousands. Then-President George W. Bush ushered in the new era with an executive order on May 18, 2001, that pushed his new administration to speed up the search for oil.
"I think it was certainly overwhelmed by the excitement of all the oil and gas that was starting to show up in the seismic studies and the technical excitement of how to drill these reservoirs," said Rick Steiner, a veteran environmental scientist who reviewed the document for McClatchy. "I think that had a way of subduing the real concern about the risk of these things."
The Shell plan, which Greenwire, an environmental news service, first reported last week, described a worst-case scenario for a deepwater blowout that in several instances reads like a preview of what's happened since BP's Deepwater Horizon rig began spewing crude into the Gulf seven weeks ago.
While noting that a major blowout was very unlikely, the Shell plan said: "Regaining well control in deep water may be a problem since it could require the operator to cap and control well flow at the seabed in greater water depths . . . and could require simultaneous firefighting efforts at the surface."
The BP disaster started when the drilling platform exploded, sending a towering wall of flames into the sky and killing 11 workers before it sank.
The 2000 Shell plan also cautioned that an oil gusher wouldn't behave the same way in deepwater as one would in shallow water, where most drilling to that point had been done. "Spills in deep water may be larger due to the high production rates associated with deepwater wells and the length of time it could take to stop the source of pollution," it said.
Among its other warnings for a drill site less than 140 miles southwest of BP's Deepwater Horizon:
- The chemical dispersants required to clean up a major spill would expose adult birds to a combination of oil and dispersant that could "reduce chick survival."
- "Fish eggs and larvae within a potentially large area of the northern Gulf would be killed."
- In certain weather and oceanographic conditions, a large blowout could have "severe adverse impacts" for wetland areas.
- Not all the spilled oil would rise to the surface, and "there are few practical spill response options for dealing with submerged oil." It predicted that gas surging from a blowout could form hydrates and remain deep underwater, a likely cause of some toxic subsea oil "plumes" that scientists have identified in the BP spill.
"That's pretty prophetic," Steiner said.
Dennis Chew, a marine biologist who helped prepare the plan but has since retired after 21 years with the MMS, studied it again this week and said: "Bottom line, this (BP) blowout was preventable." However, he blamed the accident on human error and BP "cutting corners."
The Department of Interior didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Chew and two other members of the team that prepared the Shell plan told McClatchy that MMS scientists had analyzed the potential impact of deepwater blowouts as far back as the late 1990s.
"Ten or 15 years ago, there used to be 200-page (environmental impact statements) on nothing but spills," Chew said. "It got to where people got tired of wading through them."
The 2000s, however, ushered in an era of aggressive, government-backed offshore oil production. In May 2001, Bush, acting on recommendations from the oil industry, signed an executive order that required federal agencies to expedite permits for energy projects and paved the way for greater domestic oil exploration.
The rush to drill in deep water swept aside warnings from MMS scientists and others, experts said.
"It's the fault of both the industry and the government," Steiner said. "If they had taken it seriously, they would have been ramping up production of safer blowout preventers and emergency procedures on board. They would have said, 'There's a 0.01 percent chance of this but that's enough for us, because this would be catastrophic.' "
As the agency that manages offshore drilling on the outer continental shelf and collects revenue from drilling leases, the MMS's regulatory failures and cozy relationship with the oil industry have been well documented. Its director, Elizabeth Birnbaum, resigned last month, and Obama administration officials have said the agency will be split into three branches to avoid conflicts of interest.
McClatchy reported last week that the MMS under the Obama administration had approved dozens of deepwater exploration plans that downplayed the threat of blowouts to marine life and fisheries. After McClatchy's inquiries, the administration ordered oil companies to resubmit the plans with additional safety information before they'd be allowed to drill new wells.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group, reported last month that BP's spill response plan erroneously listed seals and walruses as "sensitive biological resources" in the Gulf — suggesting that portions of BP's plan were cut and pasted from Arctic exploratory documents — and cited a Japanese home shopping website as one of its primary equipment providers.
Steiner found flaws in the 2000 Shell plan, too. It offered optimistic projections of the possibility of a deepwater blowout being bridged, or naturally sealed by sliding rock on the seafloor. It also said that a blowout from exploratory drilling would last only two days, supposedly due to bridging.
"This plan, like all of them, underestimates risk and overestimates the effectiveness of the response," Steiner said.