Blowout preventer failed on Gulf rig

NY Times:

As cleanup crews struggled Friday to cope with the massive oil slick from a leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico, dozens of engineers and technicians ensconced in a Houston office building were still trying to solve the mystery of how to shut down the well after a week of brainstorming and failed efforts.

They have continued to focus their attention on a 40-foot stack of heavy equipment 5,000 feet below the surface of the gulf — and several hundred miles from Houston. Known as a blowout preventer, or B.O.P., the steel-framed stack of valves, rams, housings, tanks and hydraulic tubing, painted industrial yellow and sitting atop the well in the murky water, is at the root of the disaster.

When an explosion and fire crippled the deepwater drilling rig on April 20, workers threw a switch to activate the blowout preventer, which is designed to seal the well quickly in the event of a burst of pressure. It did not work, and a failsafe switch on the device also failed to function.

Since then, the group of experts in deep-sea oil operations has been working out of a BP office, grappling with the intractable puzzle of how to activate the device.

“It’s a mystery, a huge Apollo 13-type mystery,” as to why the blowout preventer did not work, said a person familiar with the efforts to activate it, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.

Like Apollo-program engineers, who 40 years ago (and also in Houston) cobbled together a long-distance fix to save the crippled spacecraft and its crew, these experts are trying something far beyond routine: shutting down an underwater out-of-control well by remote control. And at a mile below the surface, the work site might as well be halfway to the moon.

The effort involves a half-dozen remotely operated robotic submersibles hovering around the blowout preventer, along with surface support ships. The submersibles, designed for drilling work, are equipped with video cameras and tools like wire cutters and “hot stabs,” metal connectors that can plug into hydraulic systems in an effort to operate them.

So far the efforts have not been successful. “They seem to be having hydraulic issues,” said the person familiar with the effort.


At a news conference Friday, Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for exploration and production for BP, said that experts from other companies and from the military had been asked to go to Houston to contribute to the effort.

Despite the lack of success, BP officials have vowed to continue, because shutting off the flow at the wellhead is the quickest solution to stopping the leak, now estimated at about 200,000 gallons a day.

An alternative, installing a containment chamber over the leaks and pumping the oil to the surface, will not be ready for at least several weeks and has never been tried at such depths. And a permanent solution, drilling a relief well that can be used to plug the damaged well with cement, will take several months. Drilling is expected to begin Saturday.


We presume that the Obama administration's restriction on new offshore drilling does not include the relief well.

I have been writing recently about the engineering effort and to is good to see the NY Times focus on the guys trying to solve the problem. At some point they need to figure out why the switch on the blowout preventer failed. That is going to be a key bit of information going forward as well as insuring the safety of existing rigs. But, obviously, the highest priority right now is figuring out how to shut off the flow.

I think they need better subs that offer more flexibility. There is also the problem with trying to shut off a valve that has fluid flowing through it under very high pressure.

The Apollo 13 analogy is interesting. They already have people from the military trying to help them solve the problem. The NASA guys don't have as much on their plate right now and could also offer solutions.


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