10 May 2010: Analysis

The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill:
An Accident Waiting to Happen

The oil slick spreading across the Gulf of Mexico has shattered the notion that offshore drilling had become safe. A close look at the accident shows that lax federal oversight, complacency by BP and the other companies involved, and the complexities of drilling a mile deep all combined to create the perfect environmental storm.

by john mcquaid

It’s hard to believe now, as oil from the wrecked Deepwater Horizon well encroaches on the Louisiana marshes. But it was only six weeks ago that President Obama announced a major push to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. Obama’s commitment to lift a moratorium on offshore drilling reflected the widely-held belief that offshore oil operations, once perceived as dirty and dangerous, were now so safe and technologically advanced that the risks of a major disaster were infinitesimal, and managing them a matter of technocratic skill.

But in the space of two weeks, both the politics and the practice of offshore drilling have been turned upside down. Today, the notion that offshore drilling is safe seems absurd. The Gulf spill harks back to drilling disasters from decades past — including one off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. in 1969 that dumped three million gallons into coastal waters and led to the current moratorium. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is a classic “low probability, high impact event” — the kind we’ve seen more than our share of recently, including space shuttle disasters, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. And if there’s a single lesson from those disparate catastrophes, it’s that pre-disaster assumptions tend to be dramatically off-base, and the worst-case scenarios downplayed or ignored. The Gulf spill is no exception.

Gulf Oil Spill
Getty Images/U.S. Coast Guard
Fire boats battle the fire on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon after the April 21 explosion.
The post-mortems are only beginning, so the precise causes of the initial explosion on the drilling platform and the failure of a “blowout preventer” to deploy on the sea floor probably won’t be established for weeks or months. But the outlines of serious systemic problems have already emerged, indicating just how illusory the notion of risk-free drilling really was, while pointing to some possible areas for reform. These blunders include weak government oversight of the complex technical challenge of drilling deep wells many miles under the ocean surface and BP’s failure to evaluate — or even consider — worst-case scenarios.

A “blowout” on an oil rig occurs when some combination of pressurized natural gas, oil, mud, and water escapes from a well, shoots up the drill pipe to the surface, expands and ignites. Wells are equipped with structures called blowout preventers that sit on the wellhead and are supposed to shut off that flow and tamp the well. Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer failed. Two switches — one manual and an automatic backup — failed to start it.

When such catastrophic mechanical failures happen, they’re almost always traced to flaws in the broader system: the workers on the platform, the corporate hierarchies they work for, and the government bureaucracies that oversee what they do. For instance, a study of 600 major equipment failures in offshore drilling structures done by Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 80 percent were due to “human and organizational factors,” and 50 percent of those due to flaws in the engineering design of equipment or processes.

Bea has worked as an engineer on offshore drilling operations and was also one of the leaders of an independent engineering study of the New Orleans levee failures during Hurricane Katrina. And the Gulf spill has some similarities to the 2005 flood, which was caused in large part by faulty floodwalls approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. The common threads between Katrina and the current oil spill, Bea wrote in an email, are “hubris, arrogance, ignorance... combined with a natural hazard.”

With near-shore and shallow reserves of fossil fuels largely depleted, drilling has moved farther offshore, into deeper waters and deeper underground. The technology for locating oil and gas reserves and for
‘We’ve pushed it to the bloody edge in this very, very unforgiving environment.’
drilling has improved, but the conditions are extreme and the challenges more formidable. “This is a pretty frigging complex system,” Bea said in an interview. “You’ve got equipment and steel strung out over a long piece of geography starting at surface and terminating at 18,000 feet below the sea floor. So it has many potential weak points. Just as Katrina’s storm surge found weaknesses in those piles of dirt — the levees — gas likes to find weakness in anything we connect to that source.”

He questions whether energy companies and government agencies have fully adapted to the new realities. “The danger has escalated exponentially,” he said. “We’ve pushed it to the bloody edge in this very, very unforgiving environment, and we don’t have a lot of experience.”

Finally, there’s a problem with fragmentation of responsibility: Deepwater Horizon was BP’s operation. But BP leased the platform from Transocean, and Halliburton was doing the deepwater work when the blowout occurred. “Each of these organizations has fundamentally different goals,” Bea said. “BP wants access to hydrocarbon resources that feed their refinery and distribution network. Halliburton provides oil field services. Transocean drives drill rigs, kind of like taxicabs. Each has different operating processes.”

Andrew Hopkins, a sociology professor at the Australian National University and an expert on industrial accidents, wrote a book called Failure to Learn about a massive explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City in 2005 that killed 15 people. He says that disaster has several possible insights for the oil spill: one was that BP and other corporations sometimes marginalize their health, safety, and environmental departments. “The crucial voice for safety in Texas City was shielded from the site manager, and the very senior agency people in the BP corporate head office in London had no role in ensuring safety at the site level,” he said. “The organizational structures disempowered the voices for safety and I think you’ve got the same thing here” in the Gulf spill.

But the more profound problem is a failure to put risks in perspective. BP and other companies tend to measure safety and environmental compliance on a day-to-day, checklist basis, to the point of basing executive bonuses on those metrics. But even if worker accident rates fall to zero, that may reveal nothing about the risk of a major disaster. “These things we are talking about are risks that won’t show up this year, next year — it may be 10 years down the road before you see one of these big blowouts or refinery accidents,” Hopkins said. “This same thing happened in the global financial crisis. Bankers were paid big bonuses for risks taken this year or next year, but the real risks came home to roost years later.”

That assumption — that catastrophic risks were so unlikely they were unworthy of serious attention — appears to have driven a lot of the government decision-making on drilling as well. The Minerals Management Service, a division of the Interior Department, oversees drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. Since the 1980s, the MMS has routinely granted a
Energy companies have aggressively lobbied to avoid formally analyzing worst-case scenarios
blanket exemption from doing a comprehensive environmental impact statement to individual drilling operations, according to Holly Doremus, a professor of environmental law at Berkeley. The Washington Post and the Associated Press reported last week that BP’s Deepwater Horizon lease received that exemption (called a “categorical exclusion”) last year. It was based on several analyses that downplayed the risks of a major oil spill. One, published in 2007, estimated the “most likely size” of an offshore spill at 4,600 barrels. NOAA’s current, conservative estimate of the Gulf spill put its total at more than 80,000 barrels, increasing at a rate of 5,000 per day.

Energy companies have aggressively lobbied to avoid formally analyzing worst-case scenarios since the Carter administration first required them in instances where there was uncertainty about the risk of disaster.

“They thought it would lead to irrational public resistance to projects,” Doremus said. “But to me this Deepwater Horizon thing is an example where a worst-case analysis would have been useful. If they had done a worst case analysis they’d have to consider, well, ‘What if our blowout preventer didn’t work? And what if it happened during a bout of bad weather when the spill might reach the shore?’” Instead, BP officials admitted they were stunned by the disaster, and they and the government have largely improvised their response.


Under Threat in the Gulf, A
Refuge Created by Roosevelt

Among the natural treasures at risk from the BP oil spill, writes historian Douglas Brinkley, is the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, created by Theodore Roosevelt to halt a grave threat to birds in his era — the lucrative trade in plumage. READ MORE
The evidence shows MMS has not taken an aggressive stance policing offshore drilling. Based on experience with malfunctioning blowout preventers, for instance, the MMS did suggest that energy companies install backup devices for triggering them. But it was only a suggestion, not a requirement, and U.S. drilling operators have declined to do so.

MMS has also been plagued by scandals in recent years, including one in which eight employees were disciplined for partying, having sex with, and receiving expensive gifts from their energy industry counterparts. Critics question whether the agency possesses the independence or the power to effectively tackle these issues post-spill. One sign of trouble: The MMS is a major player in investigating the spill and in the Outer Continental Shelf Oversight Board set up by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to examine the broader safety issues the accident raises.

“MMS is the regulator, and regulatory failure is a part of this,” Hopkins said. “It’s going to be investigating itself. It’s totally inappropriate.”

POSTED ON 10 May 2010 IN Business & Innovation Energy Oceans Pollution & Health Science & Technology North America North America 


The oil leak in the Deepwater Horizons disaster can be easily stopped by lowering a set of pinchers to the oil pipeline and pinching the pipeline closed. A submersible can postion the pinchers on the pipeline. After crimping it, the pinchers can be left in postion to ensure the line doesn't open. Cheap, fast, and workable.

Why hasn't this been done already? I've sent this suggestion to everyone I can reach for the past week. If BP's or the governments engineers can't figure this out, send me an air ticket and I'll come down to show them how.

Posted by Arthur Larson on 10 May 2010

If there was so much "Negative" infrastructure with such individual groups as the MMS and the affiliated groups of this disaster even under a "Watchful Eye" and the possible back up emergency scenarios after they were suggested by the same people that are over seeing their practices for safety, how can that possibly be an acceptable method of getting to the bottom of this event and exactly who is responsible?

This situation seems nothing short of an "Inside Job" by conspiracy mentality.

The problem is a reality now and rather than it being a possible outcome, we now have to brunt the eventual cost of fuel prices and the evidential approximations of how devastating this could last ecologically.

Let's drop money for fossil and start dumping it all into alternative fuels. POST HASTE...IMHO

Posted by Wm.Allred on 10 May 2010

It's gonna be sweet when BP — and every other large corporation under the sun that is beholden only to their own bottom line — can PURCHASE elections in the U.S. Oh wait, they can do that now, thanks to the 'supreme' court.

Posted by Chris B. on 13 May 2010

If they did an impact study, you imply that would have stopped this? In my opinion, for the blowout preventer to fail, it had to be sabotage.

I agree with Arthur Larson. His method described will work. When I worked out there in the 80's, an engineer described how safe it was because of the blowout preventer. I believe this is the first one to fail. It has to be sabotage.

You sound like you want the drilling to stop. I hope you like to walk.

Posted by Bob Fischer on 13 May 2010

NOAA and the USCG have a pre-approved In-Situ Burn plan developed in 1994 and practices have been held. It was developed for this type of accident and was pre-approved to be put into immediate action.

Unfortunately, neither the USCG, Defense Dept, NOAA, or Homeland Security had the critical part - a fire boom. A plan without equipment- it took 8 days for a single fire boom to be obtained. So much for the competence of the federal government.

I wonder how many other immediate response plans are on the shelf but without the critical equipment.

Posted by numa c on 13 May 2010

@ Arthur Larson on 10 May 2010:

I asked that too. A prominent engineer tells me crimping was tried but failed. I wish I could find details.
Posted by Eric Baxter on 15 May 2010

Great Article! I think what will ultimately be discovered is that the MMS was lax in it's duties to oversee regulatory compliance, BP was lax in it's duty to follow regulations, and the operator and engineers on the rig were not monitoring the pressure properly. And most importantly BP and the operator were not testing the BOP as legally required. Cutting corners to save a little $$ has cost 11 people their lives and serious environmental and economical damage to the GOM and LA. BP's excuse of 'not seeing this coming' is not amusing.

Offshore drilling is a science. If disasters like the Deepwater Horizon occur, it's because of human error. Either there were employees on board who didn't know what they were doing,or BP deliberately ignored safety rules in the name of $$ or both.

Posted by V. Baker on 18 May 2010

Temporary Solutions????? Can a hood be put over the underwater pipe rupture and channeled up to the surface where it can be managed in a surface container and pumped or moved to a place where it can be managed? I know Goodyear makes large rubber containers. Or, can a contained area be made where the oil can be pumped into ships or barges?

What about those brave oil cappers that came in after the Gulf war and capped off many burning oil wells. Cannot an underwater version of the same be found????

Also, engineers, oil think tankers, talk it up and let's find some solutions before the lower SE USA gets completely greased!!!!!!
Posted by John Richardson PE on 25 May 2010

How about a balloon? you insert a deflated balloon, made in extremely strong canvas, as
deep as you can go, then you suddenly inflate it. It should clog the pipe long enough for you to
push rapid cement into it.

Some sort of clever umbrella could also be used. Insert it closed, then open it and clog the pipe.

How do you get these ideas to BP engineers?

Posted by Silvano de Gennaro on 30 May 2010

Mr. Richardson,

The way I understand it the "top-kill" procedure was one of the techniques used to cap the runaway Kuwaiti wells. In that case the workers were able to walk right up to the well and put their hands on it. And the "top-hat" was a "cap" as you also suggest and that too didn't work. Operating at the depths the deepwater wells operate is akin to working in space which requires highly trained professional engineers, scientists, and astronauts. Ironically the current administration wants to transfer space exploration to commercial industries. Maybe the Deepwater Horizon incident should make us reconsider this, and, maybe we should treat deepwater oil exploration more like the space program.

Posted by Brian Baumgartner on 30 May 2010

Typical US blame culture, Rig US Designed and Built

If the thirst for US cheap oil and Gas to feed the unsatiable appetite of a nation continues then major accidents and catastrophes will occur. Look from within and pay the cost of true petroleum extraction damage.

Posted by KEVIN ROWEN on 01 Jun 2010

Thanks for the post. It’s interesting to see how BP tries to play down the event. Does this multi billion dollar company not have the resources to fix it?

Posted by John on 01 Jun 2010

How about we pour vegetable oil into the sea? Oil dissolves oil. :)

Really though, this problem has become way too large for BP or anyone to manage, no matter who you want to blame. It's honestly surprising that it took this long for a catastrophe like this to happen in the gulf.

Posted by John Dole on 01 Jun 2010

I'm not sure why BP is the scapegoat for this catastrophe. It appears obvious to me, someone who knows NOTHING about these things, that other industries and agencies share culpability.

Obviously if there were an easy fix for this it would have been done (response to some comments above). More puzzling to me is why BP is taking so much of the responsibility. Anyone?

Posted by miriam zahava on 04 Jun 2010

I have been trying unsuccessfully for the past month to get someone in BP, or a related interested party, to understand that there is basically a simple solution to preventing a sub-service oil pipeline leak. It is not however a multi ton piece of hardware costing mega bucks to install.

But a proprietary system involving micro/nano technology that blocks a flow of crude oil inside an oil pipeline, by a few minutes application of the technology outside the pipeline!

For BP´s Deep Water Horizon problem, the application of this solution would initially be from an ROV. Subsequently the HP oil/gas flow rate will enhance the effectiveness of the solution, producing after a short time total blockage of a pipeline leak.

Posted by Anthony J. Maxwell on 08 Jun 2010

We should just invest more heavily in solar energy resources. There's a prediction on http://www.solar-energy.co.uk that says the use of solar products will increase 5 fold over the next 2 years. Good news for all me thinks!

Posted by Paul on 08 Jun 2010

Posted by Arthur Larson on 10 May 2010

"The oil leak in the Deepwater Horizons disaster can be easily stopped by lowering a set of pinchers to the oil pipeline and pinching the pipeline closed. A submersible can postion the pinchers on the pipeline. After crimping it, the pinchers can be left in postion to ensure the line doesn't open. Cheap, fast, and workable.

Why hasn't this been done already? I've sent this suggestion to everyone I can reach for the past week. If BP's or the governments engineers can't figure this out, send me an air ticket and I'll come down to show them how."


Arthur,..If it were that easy I'm sure it would have been done by now, what people are missing here is the fact that the well casing itself may be broken or "Blown Out" below the sea bed.

I believe that this is the main reason why BP did not even try to place a "Quick Flange" on the riser fitted with a large "Ball" shut off valve.

A "Quick Flange" is made expressly to repair riser pipes in very deep water and it became clear that BP did not want to use this proven technology because there was a problem with back pressure possibly making the sub sea bed Blow Out worse.

BP is literally caught between a rock and the had place in how they can stop this mile deep oil volcano from spewing out a million plus gallons of oil per day, truth is I doubt that they can stop it effectively, they might be able to slow the volume of oil coming out down some but they will not be able to stop it until the relief well(s) are successfully drilled and the original bore cemented and capped.

We may not see the flow of oil stopped until late summer, this is a major environmental catastrophe of Biblical proportions being brought to you by BP who's only concern was there bottom line prior to this disaster that WE ALL must live with or in some cases DIE as a result of.

The only way WE will decrease or end our dependency on oil and what it cost US, is to STOP USING IT_PERIOD !

Posted by Lou on 10 Jun 2010

I think that BP and the government should look into a system of closing off the spill radius and contain the spill, enclosing the water and oil to a confined space. This may destroy the direct area of the spill but will make the clean up easier. This will also let BP a chance to possably salvage some of the oil that is leaking out. They should also dedicate to aplying relief wells to relieve the pressure from the initial leak.

I think that this may be a viable option to look into befor the whole coast area is even affected. Once it reaches the coast and marsh lands the impact is going to be severe.

Posted by Andrew on 11 Jun 2010

Accident waiting to happen is BP's normal MO. They knew that rusty pipe in Alaska needed to be replaced 4 years before it leaked oil all over Alaska. They knew full well that their fail safes and warning systems weren't working at the Texas City plant. That plant was a disaster before they bought it and didn't bother to fix. That's how they grew so fast. By buying rundown facilities and not fixing them.

And according to the engineer in charge of the project, they knew there was something wrong with those blowout preventers when they insisted that TransOcean rush the job and skip steps.

Posted by Linda Foss on 11 Jun 2010

It seems possible to have developed a filtering system to seperate the oil from the water. If such a filter could be put into place the oil would be filtered and thus could be recovered for use and the water could be safely returned to the Gulf. Is there a way to plug the pipeline instead of capping it? The well could be "plugged" in a way so that the more pressure is built up the tighter the plug would become. With all of the technology we have there has to be a fundamental solution to stopping the flow of oil.

Posted by kent kalhoefer on 13 Jun 2010

As an European hydrologist engineer, I like to point out, the 18,000 feet deep BP Horizon well hole has drilled through many layers of stratum. Which is currently exposed to more than 100,000psi plus pressures from the depth of this drilling into the crust below the ocean floor.

Which is obviously seeping through the well hole drill pipe container walls, as evident of the 20 mile wide bubble under the now sank BP Horizon oil rig at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Capping off this BP Horizon oil rig drill well, will force more of that 100,000psi pressure into those stratum layers, releasing additional pockets of petroleum gas and oil, through fissures and cracks, and hopefully not from an explosion, etc...

Obviously, this action could spread to the other 40,000 oil rig well holes causing more blowouts to occur!

It's even possible the whole Gulf of Mexico region could become unstable, unsafe for any vessels to travel, due to gas bubbles rising without warning, etc...

In addition, if this wasn't bad enough, the Gulf of Mexico has one of the largest dead zone in the world, due to the nitrate discharge dumped into the Gulf of Mexico from those bio-fuel crops, the feed the algae, which later dies adsorbing the oxygen in the water...

Either way, this environmental disaster will have far reaching economic effects. People are losing their livelihoods, while both Obama and BP CEO failed to take responsible, by playing golf and going sailing.

Totally unacceptable!

Posted by Barry D. Bates on 22 Jun 2010

The as yet unrealized maritime disaster still lurks in the shadows of the LNG carrier. When one of these vessels starts to leak the resultant gas cloud could make the BP problem look like a cup of spilled milk.

The result could well be a shut down in world trade of the cryogenic energy source due to either the shock wave of the cargo's rapid phase transition or combustible surface hugging gas cloud.

Never happen? Well ships continue to collide and run aground. It is never anticipated. Black Swan time.

Posted by Peter Hunt on 27 Jul 2010

Thanks for this informative summary of the spill. I am sad and mad and we need to stop drilling and invest in safer, cleaner energy now. R & D needs to be directed to getting off oil, not looking for more.
Posted by john on 03 Sep 2010

Preventers fail all the time. That's why most sane companies use backups. Even when those fail, and ie. not the main one, it is not mentioned in logs usually, unless there is some dire consequences of such failure.

The cause of this accident is the massive coverup about how risky deepwater drilling really is. Accidents happen all the time, but the numbers are covered up using "creative" and beuraucratic tricks.

The probability of such an event as this is ultra-low, but inevitable, as long as corporations cut corners and human lives in favour of small change.

Deepwater drilling != Offshore drilling. But will they listen, or just continue showing meaningless statistics?

BP has failed. Let the company sink.
Posted by Anon on 09 Sep 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
john mcquaidABOUT THE AUTHOR
John McQuaid is a journalist specializing in science, environment, and various forms of government dysfunction. His reporting at the New Orleans Times-Picayune won shares in three Pulitzer Prizes. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Slate, U.S. News, Wired, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He is also the co-author of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the environmental damage from mountaintop removal mining and the emergence of deep-sea aquaculture.



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