Marine Well Containment Company
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, center right, asks questions about the interim capping system designed by the Marine Well Containment Company. He visited the company's site in Houston on Feb. 25.
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updated 4/14/2011 3:20:19 PM ET 2011-04-14T19:20:19

With everything Big Oil and the government have learned in the year since the Gulf of Mexico disaster, could it happen again? One risk expert thinks it's inevitable, given what hasn't changed, and an Associated Press review of the industry supports that view.

The government has given the OK for oil exploration in treacherously deep waters to resume, saying it is confident such drilling can be done safely. The industry has given similar assurances. But there are still serious questions in some quarters about whether the lessons of the BP oil spill have been applied.

The industry "is ill-prepared at the least," said Charles Perrow, a Yale University professor specializing in accidents involving high-risk technologies. "I have seen no evidence that they have marshaled containment efforts that are sufficient to deal with another major spill. I don't think they have found ways to change the corporate culture sufficiently to prevent future accidents."

He added: "There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong that major spills are unavoidable."

The worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history began with an explosion April 20, 2010, that killed 11 workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig. More than 200 million gallons of crude spewed from the well a mile beneath the sea.

Since then:

  • New drilling rules have been imposed;
  • A high-tech system for capping a blown-out well and containing the oil has been built;
  • Regulators have taken steps to ramp up oversight of the industry.

But deep-sea drilling remains highly risky. The effectiveness of the much-touted containment system is being questioned because it hasn't been tested on the sea floor. A design flaw in the blowout preventers widely used across the industry has been identified but not corrected. And regulators are allowing companies to obtain drilling permits before approving their updated oil-spill response plans.

After a monthslong moratorium, the Obama administration resumed issuing drilling permits earlier this year amid great pressure from the industry and lawmakers seeking to protect communities and workers whose livelihoods depend on drilling.

A petroleum industry group is creating a center for offshore safety in Houston to address management practices and improve industry communication. And the agency that oversees offshore drilling now bars inspectors from regulating a company that employs a family member or friend. Also, inspectors who join the agency from the oil industry cannot perform inspections of their former employers for two years.

BP says it is poised to become a much safer company. It ousted several key figures during the disaster — including CEO Tony Hayward — and created a powerful unit to police company safety. BP spokesman Daren Beaudo said that because of advances made during the crisis, "the capability exists to respond to a deep-water well blowout."

Similarly, Chevron spokesman Russell A. Johnson said his company is "confident of our ability to prevent an incident similar" to the Gulf oil spill.

Gulf residents at BP meeting: Treated like ‘criminals’

Whether any of that translates into better protection remains to be seen.

"I'm not an oddsmaker, but I would say in the next five years we should have at least one major blowout," Perrow said. "Even if everybody tries very hard, there is going to be an accident caused by cost-cutting and pressure on workers. These are moneymaking machines and they make money by pushing things to the limit."

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, oil producers including BP were criticized for errors in their federally required oil-spill response plans, such as severely underestimating the time it takes oil to reach shore.

Several of the biggest oil producers told the AP they have updated their response plans but are still waiting for them to be approved. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement said it is operating under a 2002 federal regulation that allows two years to approve such plans. In the meantime, companies are allowed to proceed with their drilling applications and obtain permits as long as they certify in writing that they can handle a spill, said agency spokeswoman Eileen Angelico.

The agency "is taking the oil companies' word for it that they can handle a spill," said David Pettit, a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, one of the nation's leading environmental groups. "This is the same kind of deference to claimed oil company expertise that led directly to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster."

Regulators, however, point out that operators have to provide significant supplemental data before permits are approved.

To bolster their case for safer drilling, the companies can point to a new system developed by industry titans including Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips to contain oil spills. The system includes a cap and a series of undersea devices — including cables, a riser and a piece of equipment that would pump dispersant. Lines would be hooked up to vessels on the surface.

Oil companies say the system is capable of quickly containing a blowout 8,000 feet under water and capturing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil per day. By comparison, at the height of the Gulf spill in mid-June, BP's well was spewing some 57,000 barrels a day at a depth of 5,000 feet.

Michael Bromwich, director of the U.S. agency that regulates offshore drilling, recently acknowledged that the system was not tested in a dynamic situation — meaning in the ocean or during blowout conditions. He said such testing would be ideal, but he was still confident the system would work.

Martin W. Massey, CEO of the Marine Well Containment Co., the consortium of companies that built the system, told the AP that components of the system were tested on land in Houston in a controlled environment, with government officials monitoring and approving it. He suggested that ocean testing was not necessary.

"We're quite confident," he said. "We're ready to respond. The system is ready to go."

The consortium has said an expanded network capable of plugging a well at more than 10,000 feet below the surface and collecting 100,000 barrels of oil per day won't be ready until early 2012.

Another piece of equipment that has come under new scrutiny is the blowout preventer.

In a report last month, a firm hired by the government to test the 300-ton device made by Houston-based Cameron and used with BP's ill-fated well said the device failed to pinch the well shut in part because of a design flaw that prevented it from cutting through a drill pipe that had been knocked off center.

Cameron is one of the biggest manufacturers of blowout preventers, so the finding has raised concerns that the devices may have to be overhauled across the board. No design changes have been announced since the finding, and a Cameron vice president defended the integrity of the blowout preventers at a federal hearing this month.

If oil reaches the surface and threatens land, response companies today would still rely on the same equipment and technology that failed to quickly protect land during the BP spill. Floating booms, for example, would still be put in place around sensitive marshes and beaches.

Bromwich said recently that some oil and gas companies continue to tell him they believe the Deepwater Horizon was an aberration belonging to one party — BP — and it could not happen to them.

"In my judgment, this is as disappointing as it is shortsighted," Bromwich said. "Our view is this was a broad problem."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Timeline: Key events in BP spill, cleanup

Video: BP seeks to resume drilling

  1. Closed captioning of: BP seeks to resume drilling

    >>> u.s. officials deny reports of a deal to allow bp to resume drilling at its existing wells in the gulf of mexico in exchange for tougher safety rules. reports of bp 's petition come less than a year after the worst oil spill in u.s. history . but with the obama administration under pressure to cut foreign oil , the call to drill, baby, drill is rising once again. vern, it's good to have you with us. word that bp could resume drilling by july but a year later. do we know the impact of the spill on the gulf ecosystem yet, the wildlife? what are you seeing there?

    >> well, we certainly don't know every impact. that's clear. there is still oil coming up on the beaches. we know there's still some oil in the sea floor in the really deep water . so -- and there are more questions than answers at this point, and we're standing by waiting for the additional funding to come through so the scientists can get back to work and we can get out there and iron out some of these nagging questions.

    >> when we talk about so many questions that still exist out there, how confident are you that new safety regulations that could go into effect could safeguard the waters against other disaster like this one happening?

    >> well, i think it's sort of like when you have an airline crash . you go to the airline, you go to the manufacturer of the aircraft, and you figure out what happened, and then you put regulations in place to prevent it from happening again and you ensure the public is protected. i think that's happening in this case. we're doing the very best job we can on the blowout preventer to make sure that part of it never happens again. they're also looking at the regulations regarding the drilling process and the capping off process to make sure that doesn't happen. i think as long as we are so dependent on oil for our day-to-day lives, we've just got to do what we have to do.

    >> you were the first to report the presence of these deep plumes of oil. what are you finding now in the depth of the gulf? is that oil still out there where it can't be seen?

    >> it appears that quite a bit of it actually is. some of it is in the really deep water , and the questions there are just numerous because we don't know how much is down there. we don't know what form it's in. we don't know what it's doing to the animals. we don't nope what the long-term impact is and on and on. these are request he is that remain to be answered. there's also some in shallow water . every time there's a storm event that blows up the water is a little bit, we get oil on the beach. some of it are tar balls which are kind of innocuous. but we're also finding accumulations of this gooey stuff that if you stick your fingers under it it will run down through your fingers. it's fairly liquid. the question is where is that stuff coming from and what is becoming of it before it gets to the beaches. there's a lot we don't know.

    >> thank you for your time. processor vernon asper from the university of southern mississippi .

    >> thank you.

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