Many troubling details are beginning to come out about the explosion and sinking of the oil platform Deepwater Horizon, which oil giant BP was leasing from Transocean, the world's largest offshore drilling contractor. The platform exploded on April 20 and sank two days later, leaving 11 workers missing and presumed dead, and producing one of the largest oil spills in history in U.S. water.
Soon after the explosion and sinking of the platform, which houses the machinery used to extract oil from the ocean floor through a hole called an oil well, the New York Times reported that federal authorities have recorded more than 500 fires on oil platforms, two deaths and 12 serious injuries due to platform fires in the Gulf of Mexico since 2006. None of the accidents has slowed the rate of drilling in the Gulf, which has increased over the past decade. In the aftermath of the explosion, industry officials said that despite the loss of the Deepwater Horizon, drilling in the Gulf will likely continue as usual.
On Tuesday, the London Guardian (UK) reported that the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the US government agency responsible for overseeing offshore oil activities, was expected to launch an investigation into the sinking of Deepwater Horizon.
MMS is currently investigating a whistleblower's claims that BP had broken the law by not keeping an up-to-date set of records on the oil platform Atlantis, also located in the Gulf of Mexico. In the event of an emergency, such records would be vital to shut down the platform. According to an email from a BP executive, not having the records could lead to "catastrophic operator errors." Atlantis, which is located 190 miles south of New Orleans, is the largest oil platform of any kind in the world.
In addition, the Coast Guard announced today that oil is leaking from the Deepwater Horizon well at the rate of 5000 barrels a day, not 1000 a day as previously announced. Scientists from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration also announced that oil spill may reach the coast of Louisiana as soon as tomorrow night, and they are considering more urgent measures to protect wildlife. BP argued that the oil spill is stable and has actually moved farther away from the Louisiana coast over the past 24 hours.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the well lacked a remote-control shut-off switch that is required by Brazil and Norway, two other major oil-producing nations. The switch, a back-up measure to shut off oil flow, would allow a crew to remotely shut off the well even if a rig was damaged or sunken. BP said it couldn't explain why its primary shut-off measures did not work.
U.S. regulators considered requiring the mechanism several years ago. They decided against the measure when drilling companies protested, saying the cost was too high, the device was only questionably effective, and that primary shut-off measures were enough to control an oil spill. A 2001 industry report argued against the shut-off device:
"Significant doubts remain in regard to the ability of this type of system to provide a reliable emergency back-up control system during an actual well flowing incident."
However, a spokeswoman for Norway's Petroleum Safety Authority said the switches have "been seen as the most successful and effective option" in North Sea usage. Several oil producers, including Royal Dutch Shell, sometimes use the switch even when it is not required by country regulations.
Experts have said that the remote-control switch may have been able to shut off the Deepwater Horizon well, and critics of have said the lack of the remote control is a sign U.S. authorities have been too lax with the industry. A spokesman for Democratic Florida Senator Bill Nelson argued:
"What we see, going back two decades, is an oil industry that has had way too much sway with federal regulations. We are seeing our worst nightmare coming true."
Finally, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that BP argued against stricter safety regulations for the oil industry in letters to the Minerals Management Service last year. BP joined with several other oil producers to say that current voluntary safety rules are sufficient. BP's Vice President for Gulf of Mexico Production wrote:
"We believe the industry's current safety and environmental statistics demonstrate that the voluntary programs..have been and continue to be very successful."