A huge jolt convulsed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The pipe down to the well on the ocean floor, more than a mile below, snapped in two. Workers battled a toxic spill.
That was 2003—seven years before last month’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 people and sent crude spewing into the sea. And in 2004, managers of BP PLC, the oil giant involved in both incidents, warned in a trade journal that the company wasn’t prepared for the long-term, round-the-clock task of dealing with a deep-sea spill.
It still isn’t, as Deepwater Horizon demonstrates and as BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward said recently. It’s “probably true” that BP didn’t do enough planning in advance of the disaster, Mr. Hayward said. There are some capabilities, he said, “that we could have available to deploy instantly, rather than creating as we go.”
It’s a problem that spans the industry, whose major players include Chevron Corp, Royal Dutch Shell and Petróleo Brasileiro SA. Without adequately planning for trouble, the oil business has focused on developing experimental equipment and techniques to drill in ever deeper waters, according to a Wall Street Journal examination of previous deepwater accidents. As drillers pushed the boundaries, regulators didn’t always mandate preparation for disaster recovery or perform independent monitoring.
The brief, roughly two-decade history of deepwater drilling has seen serious problems: fires, equipment failures, wells that collapsed, platforms that nearly sank. Since last July, one brand-new deepwater rig—among the 40 or so operating in at least 1,000 feet of water in the Gulf—was swept by fire. Another lost power and started to drift, threatening to detach from the wellhead. Poor maintenance at a third deepwater well led to a serious gas leak, according to regulatory records.
By some measures, offshore drilling has become safer in recent years. Industry backers argue that major accidents are rare. The rate of serious injuries in U.S. waters fell 71% between 1998 and 2008, and the number of serious oil spills has also been falling once hurricanes are taken into account. Moreover, deepwater drilling is by some measures safer than drilling in shallower waters, where rigs are often older and operated by smaller companies.
Still, drilling for oil at depths no human could survive presents special risks when something does go wrong. The water pressure is crushing, the seabed temperature is almost freezing, the underground conditions explosive. The rapid push into deeper water means that some projects rely on technology that hasn’t been used before.
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“It’s like outer space, in terms of the complexity of the operating environment,” said Robin West, who helped oversee offshore-drilling policy under President Ronald Reagan and is now chairman of PFC Energy, a consulting firm.
In 2008, Chevron was plagued with accidents while using the Discoverer Deep Seas rig in more than 7,000 feet of water in the Gulf. There was a fire, then a leak deep under the sea. Finally the cement and steel casing inside the well collapsed, allowing drilling fluid to flow out of control. Workers stopped the flow only by permanently plugging the well.
Chevron says the well was “safely and permanently” abandoned after the problems. “One of Chevron’s core values is the safety of our employees, contractors and neighbors,” Chevron spokesman Kurt Glaubitz said. “It is fundamental to how we operate.”
BP has led the charge into the deepest, most challenging environments. Last week Mr. Hayward, the CEO, said, “It’s clear that we will find things we can do differently.”
As companies have moved farther offshore, drilling has gotten increasingly expensive. BP was paying nearly $500,000 a day to lease the Deepwater Horizon from Transocean Ltd. and paid roughly that much again for other equipment and services.
One of the most serious safety hazards on rigs are “blowouts,” the uncontrolled flows of oil and natural gas like the one that brought down the Deepwater Horizon. They remain relatively rare, but no more so than in the 1960s, when equipment was much more primitive.
That’s in part because, even as the gear used to fight blowouts has improved, the industry has steadily pushed into deeper waters.
“While drilling as a whole may be advancing to keep up with these environments, some parts lag behind,” Texas A&M professors Samuel Noynaert and Jerome Schubert wrote in a 2005 paper published in an industry journal. “An area that has seen this stagnation and resulting call for change has been blowout control in deep and ultra-deep waters.”
The professors declined to comment for this article.
Serious accidents like the Deepwater Horizon have been rare, but not unheard of. In 2001, an oil-and-gas-production platform off Brazil’s coast exploded and ultimately sank, killing 11 people.
Offshore drilling is almost as old as the oil industry itself. In the 1890s, companies began prospecting for oil from piers extending off the beach near Santa Barbara, Calif. In 1947, Kerr McGee Corp. (which was later acquired by Anandarko Petroleum Corp.) drilled the first well out of sight of land, in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the past decade or so, what had been a steady march into deeper water turned into a sprint, as easier-to-find oil fields dwindled. In 1996, Royal Dutch Shell broke new ground with its Mars platform, which floated in 3,000 feet of water. A decade later, wells in 5,000 feet of water—almost a mile deep—were so common as to be considered relatively routine. Several rigs working today can drill in water as much as 12,000 feet deep, more than two miles above the ocean floor.