WASHINGTON — A 1999 report commissioned by the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling suggests failures of underwater blowout preventers designed to stop oil spills like the massive one threatening the Gulf Coast were far from unknown, the chairwoman of a key Senate panel said Friday.
Citing a Minerals Management Service report, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said there were 117 failures of blowout preventers during a two-year period in the late 1990s on the outer continental shelf of the United States.
"To find out the ultimate failsafe weapon doesn't work is surprising," said Cantwell, who as chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee's oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee will play a roll in any congressional investigation of the Gulf oil spill and the drilling rig fire that caused it.
The unclassified version of the 1990 report said the failures involved 83 wells drilled by 26 rigs in depths from 1,300 feet to 6,560 feet.
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A similar report released by the agency in 1997 found that between 1992 and 1996 there were 138 failures of blowout preventers on underwater wells being drilled off Brazil, Norway, Italy and Albania.
Both reports are highly technical. Classified versions of the reports included proprietary information that was redacted before the reports were released publicly.
Cantwell's office said there were no newer studies, but a 2007 paper from the Minerals Management Service said between 1992 and 2006 there were 39 actual blowouts.
Blowout preventers, which can weigh up to 500,000 pounds and stand 50 feet tall, are bolted on the top of a wellhead on the seafloor and in an emergency can cut off the flow of oil to prevent a gusher. The blowout preventers can be activated by throwing a switch on the drilling rig. They are also supposed to activate automatically in the event of a major problem or, in some cases, can be activated by acoustic sound waves produced from a ship on the surface.
No one is sure what caused the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon off the coast of Louisiana to burst into flames on April 20 and sink two days later into the Gulf. The accident left 11 workers missing and presumed dead and 17 others injured. The blowout preventer apparently failed to cap the well, allowing an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil to escape daily.
The cause of the explosion and fire is under investigation, and efforts to activate the blowout preventer 5,000 feet below the surface have, so far, been unsuccessful.
The Orlando Sentinel reported Friday that BP officials were told by the crew on the rig that they had activated the blowout preventer before fleeing.
The Minerals Management Service plans to inspect all deepwater rigs in the Gulf within a week to ensure their blowout preventers and other emergency equipment are operating properly.
Cantwell said that both the Senate Commerce Committee and the Senate Energy Committee, of which she is also a member, will hold hearings on the Deepwater Horizon accident. Since the accident, she said she and her staff have been in constant contact with the Coast Guard.
The senator said the 1999 Minerals Management Service report "detailed fairly regular failures" of blowout preventers.
"I think they will try to paint this as an infrequent occurrence," she said. "They are not."
Cantwell previously led the opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"The spin back then was it could be done (drilling) safely," she said. "People say it's like inserting a straw in the ground. Well, accidents happen. In a highly sensitive area, the question is how safe can it be?"
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