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Tuesday, 18 May 2010 05:20

As Congress Berates BP and MMS on the Hill, is the Next Deepwater Horizon Waiting to Explode in the Gulf?

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BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White 

There's a time-honored tradition of lawmakers reacting to a tragedy by hauling responsible parties before C-SPAN, telling them how naughty they've been and making them promise this will never happen again. Such is the case with the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion. But after a fortnight of hearings, are we ignoring a potential time bomb called Atlantis?

In their objections to the high expectations of clean-up efforts in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP and Transocean Ltd. have stressed that they've been hampered by the fact that they're working at a depth of 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. So when officials brought to their attention that another rig -- this one some one hundred miles further out and 2,000 feet further underwater -- has the potential to "lead to catastrophic operator error," what does BP do?

Ignore it. Or better yet, quiet the whole thing up. According to the Associated Press, BP hired a company in 2009 to investigate its employee complaints of violations of its own procedures by not having complete engineering documents on a rig called Atlantis:

Engineering documents -- covering everything from safety shutdown systems to blowout preventers -- are meant to be roadmaps for safely starting and halting production on the huge offshore platform.

Running an oil rig with flawed and missing documentation is like cooking a dinner without a complete recipe, said University of California, Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea, an oil pipeline expert who has been reviewing the whistle-blower allegations and studied the Gulf blowout.

"This is symptomatic of a sick system. This kind of sloppiness is what leads to disasters," he said. "The sloppiness on the industry side and on the government side. It's a shared problem."

BP and the Minerals and Management Service, which regulates oil drilling, did not respond to calls from the AP seeking comment on the whistle-blower allegations.

Back in February, members of Congress called for MMS to investigate the problem, which affects 85 percent of the piping and instrument designs and more than 95 percent of the welding specifications. Yesterday, the whistleblower behind the allegations filed suit against the company, saying that problems with the Atlantis rig could cause a disaster that would "dwarf" the Deepwater Horizon's devastation.

But it's clear that Congress is concentrating on the disaster at hand, as the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig continues to pump untold amounts of oil into the Gulf. With each hearing we learn how ill prepared BP was for a rescue and clean-up operation at such extreme depths.

At one of the first congressional hearings on the spill, senators from both sides of the aisle criticized BP's readiness for the disaster:

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) noted that it took BP "several weeks to construct" the dome they used to try and funnel the gushing oil to a pipe on the surface (an effort that ultimately failed). Lamar McKay, BP America's president, said that it would have been "impossible to predict" the need for such equipment, but Sessions remain unconvinced. 

"Shouldn't you have anticipated that these types of things occur?" he asked. "Maybe we have become a bit too complacent in the work that we're doing here."

[New Jersey Sen. Robert] Menendez apparently agreed with Sessions' conclusion about BP's readiness.

"What I see is not a company prepared to confront a worst-case scenario," he said. "I don't get the sense that you were truly prepared. I get the sense that your making this up as you go along."

For Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), BP's ineptitude was merely part of the historical context of the company, which has had a "series of horrific accidents over a number of years."

"In each case... the company always says the same thing: 'We're going to toughen up our standards,'" Wyden said. "The culture of this company is that there's been one accident after another."

This begs the question: If the Deepwater Horizon was worse than BP's worst-case scenario, and if the difficulties arising from it stem at least partly from the fact that the rig is so deep and far from shore, wouldn't that mean that a deeper, further-from-shore rig with "significant" red flags merits serious concern?

There is mounting anecdotal evidence that the oil industry, while pumping billions of dollars into research and development projects designed to get at oil reserves which are deeper and more difficult to access, a similar investment has not been made to beef up the safety of this new category of drilling. From the Christian Science Monitor:

...the task of supplying the world's oil amid dwindling reserves is becoming ever-more complex -- and dangerous -- despite technological advancements.

"Deep water drilling is already a high-stakes casino and as geologic risk, capital risk, market risk and engineering risk all come together, they are becoming extraordinarily difficult to quantify," says Robert Bryce, an energy expert at the Manhattan Institute and author of the upcoming book "Power Hungry: The myths of 'green' energy and the real fuels of the future."

The criticism that oil companies have shorted investment in new safety technology came up at a recent House hearing on Deepwater Horizon:

Under criticism over their inability to stop the rig from leaking, BP's defense has largely been that techniques that have failed (and the ones that are about to be tried) have never been employed at 5,000 feet of water.

This excuse prompted Rep. Betty Sutton (D-OH) to question whether the economic inputs into the technology required to extract oil from deep in the ocean have been matched when it comes to investing in safety.

"The necessary investment to develop safety measures... were not adequately advanced," she said in her opening statement. "Safety must come first and investment in it must match" investment in extraction...

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) criticized a certification from BP prior to the disaster that asserted the company could deal with a spill leaking up to 250,000 barrels of oil a day. The Deepwater Horizon rig is spilling an estimated 5,000 barrels a day, which Markey noted is but 2 percent of the "worst-case scenario" that BP had promised the government that they could handle.

"Mr. McKay, you'd better rethink your certification," said Markey. "There are rigs all over the gulf that are ticking time bombs."

...The disaster did earn one -- perhaps temporary -- convert to the anti-deepwater offshore drilling team. Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-LA) opened his line of questioning by admitting that he has been a long-time supporter of oil and gas, and thanked his colleagues for having thus far "refrained from saying 'I told you so.'" He said he still supported shallow water drilling, but added that he cannot "with a good heart encourage the continuation of deepwater until I know that all safety precautions are there."

But is the suspense killing us? Though the spill is almost a month old, Congress has not yet tired of such hearings. It seems each lawmaker must have at least one opportunity to berate Big Oil (for Democrats) or Big Government (for Republicans) for their responsibility for the mess. Meanwhile, Deepwater Horizon continues to pump oil into the ocean, and the Atlantis oil rig hangs like a huge question mark over the sea floor.

So, while changes to the cozy business-as-usual atmosphere at MMS are a great start, and while getting down to the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster are important, Congress should take a moment to renew the call for an investigation of the Atlantis rig, before it's too late (again). 

BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS