Out of Control from the Moment of the Blowout

Former offshore drilling regulator Liz Birnbaum talks about what went wrong in the Gulf (and why drilling the Atlantic is a bad idea).

Next month will mark five years since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana. Over the next 87 days, BP’s Macondo well, located more than 5,000 feet below the surface, gushed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The accident killed 11 people, crippled the region’s fishing and tourism industries, and devastated wildlife populations. Still, offshore drilling resumed six months later after a short moratorium, and earlier this year, President Obama proposed opening the Atlantic and parts of the Arctic to oil and gas exploration. Scientists are still studying the health and ecological impacts of the Gulf spill, considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Gulf residents are still feeling its consequences.

On April 20, 2010, Liz Birnbaum was director of the Minerals Management Service, which made her the government’s top regulator of offshore drilling. She resigned shortly after the disaster and now works as an environmental consultant. In a conversation with Earthwire, she discusses what went wrong that day, whether it can be fixed, and if offshore drilling makes any sense in the face of climate change.

Brian Palmer: At what point did you realize things were spinning out of control?

Liz Birnbaum: Well, things were out of control from the moment of the blowout. That was apparent to us the morning of April 21, when we were dealing with an uncontrolled fire on a drilling rig over an oil well. But the enormity of the problem became clearer and clearer.

That first morning, we didn’t know whether the fire was being fed by fuel tanks on the platform itself or by oil and gas coming out of the well. We didn’t know whether the attempt to seal the oil well had closed off some of the flow, or whether the blowout preventer rams might have closed or partially closed, reducing the flow from the well. Another thing we learned that morning caused even more concern—BP told us it had made a major discovery of oil and gas in the Macondo well. That meant the well could supply an enormous amount of fuel for the fire under high pressure or create a significant spill.

During the course of that first day, as the fireboats were unable to stop the fire on the rig, it became pretty apparent that oil or gas from the well was in fact fueling the fire. But we hadn’t fully realized that we were in disaster territory until the next day. BP tried to close the blowout preventer using a remotely operated vehicle on April 21 and 22. They had no success in closing down the well. As the rig itself sunk into the Gulf of Mexico—less than 48 hours after the initial blowout—the fire went out, and the oil began to spill rather than burn off. The well was out of control, and it wasn’t obvious how BP could control it. We knew the oil spill might continue until a separate “relief well” could be drilled.

From then on, a huge number of public and private scientists and engineers were trying novel strategies to try to stop the flow. As one BP official said to us, “Each of the devices we’re trying has serial number 1”—they were all completely new inventions. It took three months to find the one that would control the well until it could be sealed completely.

Palmer: Could we have foreseen and prepared for a disaster of this scale?

Birnbaum: Like most major industrial accidents, several failures contributed. If any of those failures had been avoided, the spill might not have occurred. And in hindsight, every one of those failures could have been predicted and avoided by somebody. The challenge for regulators is always foreseeing the problems that haven’t yet occurred.

What contributed to this accident falls into two categories: engineering failures and errors of human judgment. Regulation could have addressed both, though human judgment may be the hardest to correct. At the time of the spill, we were actually completing new rules that would require safety systems—management processes designed to reduce those human-judgment errors. Those rules have been finalized since the spill. Less has been done to prevent the engineering failures.

Palmer: A faulty blowout preventer turned what could have been a minor offshore oil spill into one of the largest in history. Yet, five years later, we’re still waiting for updated blowout preventer rules. Is the delay technical, political, or a combination of the two?

Birnbaum: Obviously any delay in adopting the new regulations is irresponsible. It’s been more than three years since the National Academy of Engineering told us how inadequate the current blowout preventers are. The last I heard, draft standards for blowout preventers had been sent from the Department of the Interior (DOI) to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The final rules won’t go into effect for at least another year, and even then they’ll have to include a multiyear phase-in period for new blowout preventers, which are enormous pieces of equipment. Worldwide, there’s a limited capacity to build and put them into use.

There may be some technical component to the delay. The National Academy of Engineering told us what’s wrong with blowout preventers, but they didn’t draft regulations that would make them work properly. The largest part of the delay has been a management failure to prioritize these rules. DOI has placed a higher priority on getting other rules in place, and for some reason the blowout preventer rules keep slipping to the back of the pile. Every year a senior official has promised to set standards for blowout preventers, and every year it’s been put off.

Palmer: What other important safety changes have yet to be made?

Birnbaum: We also need real-time monitoring of drilling operations. A large number of the misjudgments leading to the blowout were choices made by engineers working on the rig. They made poor choices at several stages based on their knowledge about the well's conditions. All that information was also being instantaneously transmitted to BP’s engineers onshore, but those engineers weren’t monitoring for safety. I understand that this is standard practice in the industry (though BP now says it has begun to review that data onshore).

This essential data is also not given to federal regulators who might oversee well conditions, and whose sole incentive would be to ensure safe operations. Although the DOI does examine rigs on a regular basis, those inspections look at the state of the facilities at just one moment. It’s kind of like the difference between the annual safety inspection for your car, and the way that a race car mechanic monitors engine performance and tire wear throughout a race. Inspecting that car before the race doesn’t determine how race conditions may affect its operation.

I believe the DOI should require that all the well data from deepwater drilling be transmitted to its onshore offices. The department should then employ engineers to do nothing but oversee that drilling. For some reason, the DOI has chosen to include this requirement in new permits for offshore Arctic drilling but not for deepwater wells. Protecting the Arctic is essential but so is protecting Gulf resources and communities from a blowout of high-pressure oil reserves in water depths more than 1,000 feet. The hazards at those depths and pressures require careful monitoring.

Palmer: Do you worry that Americans will soon forget the Deepwater Horizon spill?

Birnbaum:  I do worry that the modern news cycle and massive media inputs have distracted us from the lessons of Deepwater Horizon. America’s largest environmental disaster has faded from the front pages—and nobody has time to read anything but the front page anymore.

But the principal burden remains for the industry and the regulators to remember what happened and why—and to prevent it from happening again. Several incidents over the last couple of years, where lessees lost control of wells in less dire accidents, suggest that even the drilling operators are beginning to forget.

Palmer: If the president had asked you for your opinion about opening the Atlantic to drilling, what would you have said?

Birnbaum: The amount of oil available off the East Coast is uncertain—a few exploration wells were drilled a few decades ago, and those didn’t find deposits worth developing. In addition, the industry doesn’t have the infrastructure to drill, transport, and process oil along the Atlantic coast. It would take enormous new infrastructure development to support oil and gas drilling—investment that’s probably not justified considering that the most likely prospects still remain in the Gulf of Mexico. And the risk to fisheries, shipping, and recreation along the Atlantic coast would be enormous, especially where currents might push a spill toward shore.

But the biggest reason not to drill the Atlantic is simply that we need to quit believing we can drill our way into the future. We need to establish a federal policy that would make as much of an investment in alternative energy as we have in oil and gas, which are still the most subsidized energy sources in the United States.

Palmer: Have we reached a point at which offshore drilling no longer makes sense anywhere, under any circumstances? Would it take another Deepwater Horizon–like disaster to get us there?

Birnbaum: Again, I can only answer this from the perspective of addressing global climate change—we have long since reached the point where we should stop drilling for new supplies of oil. We must make a serious worldwide commitment to transition away from fossil fuels and allow existing reserves to supply our needs during that transition. Regardless of the threat of oil spills or adequacy of safety regulations, new drilling is a mistake.


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