Chu: Better technology can prevent another Gulf oil blowout

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 22, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the Nobel-prize winning physicist who got involved in sorting out the BP oil spill, said Wednesday that there were many practical steps that could be taken to prevent another blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chu spoke at a government and industry forum on how to improve technology so that drilling is safer and the response is faster to oil accidents more than a mile underwater.

The BP oil spill exposed faulty industry response plans, the lack of government oversight and the difficulties of shutting off an oil and gas gusher at depths where no human can go. The government's official estimate is that 4.1 million barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf from April 22, when the Deepwater Horizon rig collapsed after an explosion, to July 15, when the flow was capped.

The session didn't consider the larger question of whether drilling at the depths of BP's ultra-deep Macondo well is a risk worth taking. More than 80 percent of the Gulf's production takes place more than 1,000 feet below the surface and a third comes from wells deeper than 5,000 feet.

The economic damage from BP's nearly three-month-long spill is being counted in the billions, while government and private researchers are still trying to determine the long-term consequences for the environment and marine life.

During Wednesday's session, officials talked about the lack of redundant equipment that would have prevented the spill or warned of its imminent occurrence.

Chu said BP could have saved "about 10 days of angst" if there had been instruments on the blowout preventer — a piece of equipment designed to seal the drill pipe in the event of an explosion — that would have signaled whether its valves were closed. Blowout preventers throughout the industry lack such devices, he said.

It also would have helped to have multiple systems to measure pressure, he said.

The Department of Energy has experience with the kind of precision and care that's needed because it's responsible for nuclear weapons, Chu said.

He said he recently visited the Pantex plant in Texas, which assembles and dismantles nuclear weapons, where a mistake "could end up in a blinding white flash." In the nuclear industry, much has been learned about how to design systems that prevent failures, Chu said.

"We have over the last half century developed procedures which are different from what I've seen in this industry," he said. "One doesn't have to reinvent a lot of things."

Crucial controls should be able to check themselves automatically, he said. "Those kinds of things, in my opinion, should be rudimentary."

The oil industry also needs a remotely operated vehicle that could stay in place during a hurricane.

"We were sitting on pins and needles" when a tropical storm blew in after the temporary cap was put in place, because observation vessels had to be moved to safety, Chu said.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the government's point man on the BP spill, agreed that better sensing equipment was needed for deepwater oil drilling.

He also argued that the government and industry "somehow forgot the value of research and development" by the mid-1990s, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. That was the same time that drilling started to move offshore into deep water.

Allen also said the government needed to bring in staff with technical expertise on deepwater drilling.

"Quite frankly, technology got ahead of government on offshore drilling," he said.

Oil industry executives at the meeting included Andrew Inglis, BP's chief executive for exploration and production.

Inglis said BP "deeply regretted" the spill, and added: "No one anticipated an event where this particular series of mechanical and human failures would occur."

He said "robust research and development" would be needed for better containment of deepwater spills and that an industry group hoped to work with the Department of Energy's national labs.

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