By RUSSELL GOLD, BEN CASSELMAN And GUY CHAZAN, WSJ.com, April 28, 2010
The oil well spewing crude into the Gulf of Mexico didn't have a remote-control shut-off switch used in two other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills.
The lack of the device, called an acoustic switch, could amplify concerns over the environmental impact of offshore drilling after the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig last week.
The accident has led to one of the largest ever oil spills in U.S. water and the loss of 11 lives. On Wednesday federal investigators said the disaster is now releasing 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf, up from original estimates of 1,000 barrels a day.
U.S. regulators don't mandate use of the remote-control device on offshore rigs, and the Deepwater Horizon, hired by oil giant BP PLC, didn't have one. With the remote control, a crew can attempt to trigger an underwater valve that shuts down the well even if the oil rig itself is damaged or evacuated.
The efficacy of the devices is unclear. Major offshore oil-well blowouts are rare, and it remained unclear Wednesday evening whether acoustic switches have ever been put to the test in a real-world accident. When wells do surge out of control, the primary shut-off systems almost always work. Remote control systems such as the acoustic switch, which have been tested in simulations, are intended as a last resort.
Nevertheless, regulators in two major oil-producing countries, Norway and Brazil, in effect require them. Norway has had acoustic triggers on almost every offshore rig since 1993.
The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn't needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well.
The U.K., where BP is headquartered, doesn't require the use of acoustic triggers.
On all offshore oil rigs, there is one main switch for cutting off the flow of oil by closing a valve located on the ocean floor. Many rigs also have automatic systems, such as a "dead man" switch as a backup that is supposed to close the valve if it senses a catastrophic failure aboard the rig.
As a third line of defense, some rigs have the acoustic trigger: It's a football-sized remote control that uses sound waves to communicate with the valve on the seabed floor and close it.
An acoustic trigger costs about $500,000, industry officials said. The Deepwater Horizon had a replacement cost of about $560 million, and BP says it is spending $6 million a day to battle the oil spill. On Wednesday, crews set fire to part of the oil spill in an attempt to limit environmental damage.
Some major oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell PLC and France's Total SA, sometimes use the device even where regulators don't call for it.
Transocean Ltd., which owned and operated the Deepwater Horizon and the shut-off valve, declined to comment on why a remote-control device wasn't installed on the rig or to speculate on whether such a device might have stopped the spill. A BP spokesman said the company wouldn't speculate on whether a remote control would have made a difference.
Much still isn't known about what caused the problems in Deepwater Horizon's well, nearly a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. It went out of control, sending oil surging through pipes to the surface and causing a fire that ultimately sank the rig.
Unmanned submarines that arrived hours after the explosion have been unable to activate the shut-off valve on the seabed, called a blowout preventer.
BP says the Deepwater Horizon did have a "dead man" switch, which should have automatically closed the valve on the seabed in the event of a loss of power or communication from the rig. BP said it can't explain why it didn't shut off the well.
Transocean drillers aboard the rig at the time of the explosion, who should have been in a position to hit the main cutoff switch, are among the dead. It isn't known if they were able to reach the button, which would have been located in the area where the fire is likely to have started. Another possibility is that one of them did push the button, but it didn't work.
Tony Hayward, BP's CEO, said finding out why the blowout preventer didn't shut down the well is the key question in the investigation. "This is the failsafe mechanism that clearly has failed," Mr. Hayward said in an interview.
Lars Herbst, regional director of the Minerals Management Service in the Gulf of Mexico, said investigators are focusing on why the blowout preventer failed.
Industry consultants and petroleum engineers said that an acoustic remote-control may have been able to stop the well, but too much is still unknown about the accident to say that with certainty.
Rigs in Norway and Brazil are equipped with the remote-control devices, which can trigger the blowout preventers from a lifeboat in the event the electric cables connecting the valves to the drilling rig are damaged.
While U.S. regulators have called the acoustic switches unreliable and prone, in the past, to cause unnecessary shut-downs, Inger Anda, a spokeswoman for Norway's Petroleum Safety Authority, said the switches have a good track record in the North Sea. "It's been seen as the most successful and effective option," she said.
The manufacturers of the equipment, including Kongsberg Maritime AS, Sonardyne Ltd. and Nautronix PLC, say their equipment has improved significantly over the past decade.
The Brazilian government began urging the use of the remote-control equipment in 2007, after an extensive overhaul of its safety rules following a fire aboard an oil platform killed 11 people, said Raphael Moura, head of safety division at Brazil's National Petroleum Agency. "Our concern is both safety and the environment," he said.
Industry critics cite the lack of the remote control as a sign U.S. drilling policy has been too lax. "What we see, going back two decades, is an oil industry that has had way too much sway with federal regulations," said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. "We are seeing our worst nightmare coming true."
U.S. regulators have considered mandating the use of remote-control acoustic switches or other back-up equipment at least since 2000. After a drilling ship accidentally released oil, the Minerals Management Service issued a safety notice that said a back-up system is "an essential component of a deepwater drilling system."
The industry argued against the acoustic systems. A 2001 report from the International Association of Drilling Contractors said "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."
By 2003, U.S. regulators decided remote-controlled safeguards needed more study. A report commissioned by the Minerals Management Service said "acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly."
A spokesman for the agency, Nicholas Pardi, said the decision not to require the device came, in part, after the agency took a survey that found most rigs already had back-up systems of some kind. Those systems include the unmanned submarines BP has been using to try to close the seabed valve.
—Jeff Fick contributed to this article.
Write to Russell Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org, Ben Casselman at email@example.com and Guy Chazan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications:
The oil rig that exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico was owned by Transocean Ltd. and leased by BP PLC. A previous version of this article incorrectly said that BP owned the rig.