Years before the Gulf of Mexico became witness to the nightmare scenario of an unstoppable volcano of crude oil gushing from an unplugged oil well deep beneath the ocean, both the oil industry and the federal agency charged with monitoring seabed drilling off America's coasts knew the last-ditch "failsafe" technology intended to prevent just this sort of catastrophe might not work.
A 2002 mini-study of so-called shear rams -- devices designed to cut and seal oil wells in the event of a cataclysmic blowout -- found that in real world tests, two out of seven (nearly 30 percent) of the rams didn't work. The study further warned that "when operational considerations were accounted for, shearing success dropped to three out of six."
"This grim snapshot illustrates the lack of preparedness in the industry to shear and seal a well with the last line of defense against a blowout," warned a lengthy follow-up analysis done for the U.S. Minerals Management Service in 2004.
"That's a good report," Mik Else of the MMS Engineering and Research Branch said Monday. "We put a lot of attention to that report."
What exactly MMS did with the information, however, is unclear. Else wouldn't talk. He is under orders to stay mum. MMS employees, he said, have been told to clear all information with the agency's public affairs office before conducting interviews with reporters interested in anything that might pertain to BP's ongoing Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf.
"We have the president breathing down our neck," Else said, not to mention a variety of Congressional committees racing to be the first to figure out whom exactly to blame for what is developing into the nation's largest environmental disaster. It is a disaster that, in theory, should have been prevented by the aforementioned shear ram.
It is a disaster everyone hopes to avoid when -- or if -- Royal Dutch Shell starts drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the northern Alaska coast this summer. As this is written, drilling there is on hold pending a May 28 announcement from the White House of a review on drilling safety. Though Shell has the permits to drill, the White House could still stop work this summer.
Shell Alaska Venture officials say they are confident they can operate safely in the Chukchi and Beaufort. More than 50 wells were drilled there in the 1970s without a problem. Though the weather conditions are worse than in the Gulf of Mexico, the drilling itself is technologically simpler.
Drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort is slated to take place in hundreds of feet of water, not thousands of feet as in the Gulf. The wells themselves are to be drilled only a fraction as deep beneath the seabed. And there are no indications Shell could find a pocket of pressurized gas anywhere close to as powerful as the one BP hit in the Gulf.
Shell Alaska Operations Manager Brent Ross, a highly experienced driller who has worked in the Arctic before, is confident the Chukchi and Beaufort can be drilled safely. He believes that even if Shell had a blowout, there wouldn't be the underground energy associated with it to create the sort of volcano BP is dealing with in the Gulf. But even Ross admits it is impossible to eliminate all risks.
Enter the shear ram.
The shear ram is supposed to be to the offshore oil drillers what the ejector seat is to a fighter pilot. When drilling spins out of control and the ship is lost, the drill rig operator hits the shear ram to cut the drill pipe, seal the well and save the environment -- if not necessarily the people on the rig.
Eleven oilfield workers died April 20 when the oil well being drilled almost a mile below the Deepwater Horizon drill ship in the Gulf blew out. Deep beneath the seabed, a pressurized pocket of natural gas and oil somehow overpowered the weight of the drilling mud that was supposed to keep it tamped down in the drill pipe. The gas escaped upward, exploding and starting a fire aboard the Horizon. The ship eventually sank. The pipeline connecting it to the well bent, twisted and broke as it went down. Oil began spewing out of the broken pipe in three places.
That was more than a month ago. One of the leaks was capped quickly. The other two have continued to gush. Millions of gallons of crude oil have flowed into the Gulf, and though well owner BP is now trying yet another effort to stem the leak, millions more -- if not tens of millions more -- could continue to flow.
This was not supposed to have happened. Down on the seabed, a device called a "blowout preventer" was to have averted this disaster through a variety of means. The blowout preventer "stack," as the industry calls the five-story-tall, 300-ton series of oil well control devices, has a variety of ways to choke off the flow of oil from a gushing well.
The shear ram is but the last of them. It is supposed to be the failsafe for when all the other systems fail. In theory, it is will slice right through the pipe and leave a cap over the well.
The shear ram didn't work in the Gulf. No one knows for sure why. No one will know for sure why until the blowout preventer is actually retrieved from the ocean floor. But the shear ram failure comes as no real surprise to those in the oil industry. Drillers have for years known of several flaws in shear ram design.
The shear ram, for instance, won't cut through the pipe if there are tools inside; it won't cut through so-called "tool joints" where sections of pipe are joined; and it might not even cut through the latest generation of high-tech drill pipe.
The 2002 warnings about the weaknesses of shear rams led MMS to commission a lengthy "Shear Ram Capabilities Study" in 2004. This is the study to which Else made a reference. It was delivered to MMS by WEST Engineering Services of Brookshire, Texas.
Raleigh Williamson, one of the co-authors of the report, refused to talk about the study Monday. He claimed just about anything he said could compromise his company's relationship with its clients in the oil industry, although the report WEST did for MMS itself raises questions about the value of those relationships.
"Upon being awarded this study, WEST began efforts to obtain the data required," WEST finally reported to the federal agency charged with overseeing the safety of offshore drilling. "Accordingly, four manufacturers were contacted. There was a reluctance to share data for a myriad of reasons; therefore, much time and effort was necessarily spent in this area. Eventually Cameron, Hydril and Grant Prideco provided their data and the MMS provided data that had previously been provided to them by Varco Shaffer."
Competitive interests were apparently keeping companies from working cooperatively on what might be the most important piece of safety technology in the offshore oil business. Six years on from the MMS study, it appears not much has changed in that regard either.
Chevron, one of the major oil producers, has been working on the what it calls an "alternative well kill system," or AWKS -- a sort of super shear ram. But it seems to be doing so under wraps. Williamson said he didn't know of anyone at Chevron to whom he could even refer questions. Else had heard about the Chevron project, but didn't appear to know much about it or was unable to talk about it if he did. A MMS official in Anchorage, however, was able to provide a phone number for someone at Chevron thought to be able to answer questions.
That turned out to be Bill Scott, manager of Chevron's Arctic Center in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Scott did not return phone calls. But just a month before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Scott had talked to Petroleum News about the weaknesses in blowout preventers.
Though the story provided few details on Chevron's design, it did note the company's belief that a truly failsafe device is needed in the blowout preventer because, as Scott was quoted saying, "It's going to become increasingly challenging to be able to drill a relief well (in the Arctic) ... We're now looking at wells that take two to three seasons to drill; so obviously the ability to continuously drill a relief well in those areas is challenged, if not impossible."
BP is still in the process of trying to drill a relief well in the Gulf of Mexico so it can permanently plug its gusher. The drilling is not going nearly fast enough for anyone in the Gulf, and BP says the well might not be done until August.
Chevron is trying to drill in the Canadian Arctic to the east of Shell in the Alaska Arctic. At an Arctic drilling conference in Anchorage in October 2009, Chevron screened a PowerPoint presentation on why it is trying to develop a better shear ram for that drilling -- AWKS.
"A proactive approach would represent a preventative method and, as such, can limit or dramatically reduce any spilled volume in the highly unlikely event of a loss of well control," the company said in that presentation.
Alaskans well know -- as residents of the Gulf of Mexico are now discovering -- the disaster that can be created by a "spilled volume" of oil in the water. Despite a $2 billion cleanup effort after the Exxon Valdez tanker spill 21 years ago, only 14 percent of the 11 million gallons of crude that smeared Alaska was ever cleaned up by Exxon. That's less than the 20 percent that evaporated.
Nature eventually recycled most of the oil, but not before hundreds of thousands of birds, thousands of otters and a variety of other wildlife paid the price, and Alaskans learned you don't clean up an oil spill -- you live with it as best you can. Prince William Sound, the epicenter for Exxon Valdez, is now generally clean and healthy, but beneath the gravels of some beaches, oil remains.
No one can begin to guess what would happen if something like the Deepwater Horizon spill took place beneath the broken ice off Alaska's northern coast. The MMS has estimated a one in 300,000 chance of that happening if drilling moves forward. Those are awfully good odds, but Chevron is talking about true "100 percent backup/redundancy" with its AWKS, "the next generation of shear rams."
Testing on the AWKS is supposed to be underway. Stay tuned for details.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.