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updated 5/21/2010 4:04:03 PM ET 2010-05-21T20:04:03

As hopes dim for containing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico anytime soon, more people are asking why the industry was not better prepared to react.

Members of Congress are holding hearings this week and demanding to know why the federal Minerals Management Service did not force oil companies to take more precautions. Environmentalists are saying they tried to raise the alarm to Congressional committees that the industry had no way to respond to a catastrophic blowout a mile below the sea.

Local officials in the gulf are beginning to ask, “What was Plan B?” The answer, oil industry engineers are acknowledging, was to deploy technology that has not changed much in 20 years — booms, skimmers and chemical dispersants — even as the drilling technology itself has improved.

“They have horribly underestimated the likelihood of a spill and therefore horribly underestimated the consequences of something going wrong,” said Robert G. Bea, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies offshore drilling. “So what we have now is some equivalent of a fire drill with paper towels and buckets for cleanup.”

For years, major oil companies, as well as the Minerals Management Service, played down the possibility of an uncontrolled blowout on the sea floor, arguing that safeguards like blowout preventers were practically foolproof.

In November, Walter D. Cruickshank, deputy director of the Minerals Management Service, told a Senate committee that an undersea blowout and massive spill that had occurred in East Timor last year was highly unlikely in the Gulf of Mexico because of tighter United States regulations. All wells had safety devices to shut off the flow in emergencies, he said.

At the same hearing, a BP vice president, David Rainey, promoted the oil companies’ “blowout preventer technology, which includes redundant systems and controls” and told senators that “contrary to popular perception, ours is a high-tech industry.”

'Real-time learning'
What government regulators and industry officials did not foresee in the Deepwater Horizon disaster last month is that the rig would sink and that robots would not be able to stanch the flow of oil at such depths, even though a consultant hired by government regulators in 2003 had warned that they were unreliable.

Video: Safety record far from clean “This is the first time the industry has had to confront this issue in this water depth, and there is a lot of real-time learning going on,” BP’s chief executive officer, Tony Hayward, acknowledged at a news conference Monday. “The investigation of this whole incident will undoubtedly show up things that we should be doing differently.”

Once oil was flowing into the water, the methods of dealing with it have changed little in decades, environmentalists say. Tenting spills with giant upside-down funnels has been done in shallower waters, but until last weekend, it had not been tried in deep water. The first attempt failed.

“The oil industry went off the deep end with a new kind of risk, and they didn’t bother to build a response capability before they had a big disaster,” said Richard Charter, an advocate with Defenders of Wildlife who studies offshore drilling.

The heart of the industry’s plan to contain the oil falls to the Marine Spill Response Corporation, a nonprofit organization formed in 1990 after the Exxon Valdez disaster. It is maintained largely by fees from the biggest oil companies.

Judith Roos, a vice president of Marine Spill Response, said the majority of its equipment, including booms and skimmers, was bought in 1990. “The technology hasn’t changed that much since then,” she said.

Steve Benz, president of the corporation, said his group had no budget for research.

Focus on quick response
In the last three years, however, the company has added C-130 planes to spray dispersants. On this, the company says, it is ahead of the regulatory curve.

Video: Oil spill's growth Allison Nyholm, a policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry had done extensive experiments with improving skimmers, booms and dispersants. Some booms are fire retardant and allow burning on the water, for example, while others actually absorb oil.

She noted that blowout scenarios were rare and needed to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“One of the best tools is how you bring the best professionals together to respond to the spill,” Ms. Nyholm said. “It is not the dispersant or the boom or the burn, it is how quickly can you get the right people together.”

Yet Rick Steiner, a marine biologist and frequent consultant on big oil spills, said the oil companies could have had some version of the containment dome ready before the spill, rather than building one after it happened.

“It is like building the fire truck when your house is on fire,” Dr. Steiner said.

Engineers who work on rig structures said such prefabricated containment domes would not be practical. They said that each dome would have to be tailored to the spill, so there was little sense in making one beforehand.

Jeffrey Short, a former scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who now works for the environmental group Oceana, said it was clear that the industry was not willing to pay for enough boats and booms to enclose such a fast-growing spill.

“It’s just really hard to corral something that’s expanding at that rate,” Dr. Short said. “Ultimately it’s an investment challenge. How much money are you willing to spend on an event that happens infrequently?”

'Blowouts will always happen'
Several environmentalists also said the industry should have predicted that a blowout of this magnitude would eventually happen. John F. Amos, a former geologist for oil companies who now runs an organization that tracks oil spills using satellite images, told Congress last fall that the undersea blowout in East Timor was a warning. It leaked for 10 weeks before crews managed to drill relief wells. “Blowouts are surprisingly regular occurrences,” he said. “But ones that lead to catastrophic spills like this are quite rare.”

Slideshow: Oil disaster Jerome J. Schubert, an engineer at Texas A&M who has written extensively about undersea drilling, found in a 2005 study that “blowouts will always happen no matter how far technology and training advance” and that there were no foolproof safeguards to stop them. The study, co-written by Samuel F. Noynaert and financed by BP, found that blowouts in undersea wells had occurred at a steady rate since the 1960s despite improvements in technology.

“The best safeguards don’t always work,” he said.

James C. McKinley reported from Houston, and Leslie Kaufman from New York.

This story, "New Ways to Drill, Old Methods for Cleaning Up," first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

Video: BP turns to low-tech fix

  1. Transcript of: BP turns to low-tech fix

    ANN CURRY, anchor: And, you know, Matt was just talking about offshore oil drilling . Well, today, the executives from British Petroleum face tough questions on Capitol Hill about that oil spill off Louisiana . And nearly three weeks after it started, that leak shows no sign of being stopped any time soon. NBC 's chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson has more now. Anne , good morning.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good morning, Ann. While the blame game gets under way today in Washington , DC , here in the Gulf , engineers are pursuing answers to a different question and that is how to plug the leak. The National Guard is building barriers on Louisiana 's coast west of the Mississippi to keep the spreading oil slick out of the state's precious marshes.

    Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, Louisiana): These are America 's wetlands. This is where 30 percent of America 's fisheries are, this is where America 's energy is produced.

    THOMPSON: Louisiana 's valuable waters continue to be tainted by crude. BP 's latest idea to contain one of the leaks is a smaller containment dome called a top hat . Five feet tall, four feet in diameter and just two tons, compared to the 100-ton version that got clogged with icelike crystals called hydrates.

    Mr. DOUG SUTTLES (Chief Operating Officer, BP Exploration and Production): We'll actually be able to inject methanol into the top of the dome. Methanol actually blocks the formation of hydrates.

    THOMPSON: It is another untested technique. The only tried and true method could take up to three months.

    Mr. ED OVERTON (LSU School of the Coast Environment): Clearly there is no substitute other than the relief well.

    THOMPSON: In Vero Beach , Florida , far from the threat of oil, the first two birds soiled by the spill, a Northern Gannet and a Brown Pelican , were returned to their natural habitat .

    Dr. SHARON TAYLOR (US Fish and Wildlife Service): They're doing wonderful. They both have gained weight, they're eating well.

    THOMPSON: Their rehabilitation deemed a success. Now in Washington today, the CEO of BP , along with the heads of Transocean , the owner of the oil rig , and Halliburton , which cased the well in cement, will all testify, and we expect a lot of finger pointing, Ann.

    CURRY: All right, Anne Thompson this morning. Thanks so much.

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