US agency: Faulty blowout preventer contributed to deadly BP spill

HOUSTON Thu Jun 5, 2014 6:45pm EDT

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HOUSTON (Reuters) - A faulty blowout preventer and weaknesses in how companies analyze potential hazards in offshore oil and gas operations contributed to BP Plc's deadly Gulf of Mexico oil spill more than four years ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said on Thursday.

Despite tougher regulations, a slew of other investigations and an ongoing federal civil trial with potentially billions of dollars at stake, companies may still drill without demonstrating that they have adequate barriers in place to prevent deadly accidents, the agency said.

The CSB, which has no enforcement authority but can recommend safer practices, routinely probes accidents at chemical plants and refineries. The BP investigation was its first involving an offshore accident.

The CSB did not examine all aspects of the Macondo blowout and explosion that killed 11 men and unleashed more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

Rather than re-examine issues already covered by other probes, including those by the U.S. Coast Guard and a commission appointed by President Barack Obama, the CSB studied equipment and hazardous materials operations and safety management.

BP spokesman Geoff Morrell said the core findings were consistent with other probes that said the disaster stemmed from multiple causes involving multiple parties.

The CSB concluded that the blowout preventer failed because the drillpipe inside of it was off-center and could not be fully sheared. The blowout preventer's control systems also were miswired, but likely could still have sealed the well had the pipe not buckled, the report said.

A blowout preventer is a multi-ton stack of valves and pipes that sits atop deepwater wells to stop oil and gas from gushing upward in an accident.

Also, the board said different pressures inside the drillpipe and the area between the pipe and the well caused it to buckle and move off center, so a key piece of equipment called a shear ram could not cut through the pipe to seal the well.

Other probes had found that explosions aboard Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig moved the pipe. Transocean refused to cooperate with the CSB's probe, challenging the agency's jurisdiction.

The issues underscore existing and undetected design limits in the blowout preventer, the CSB said.

In addition, the board said that while regulators began requiring operators to do hazard analyses for all offshore structures post-Macondo, the rule doesn't require a risk reduction target or documented rationale of hazard control.

That means companies can still comply with the rule even if they do a weak analysis that does not identify the operating condition of critical safety equipment such as a blowout preventer, the board said.

In 2011, Cameron International Corp, the maker of the blowout preventer, agreed to a $250 million settlement with BP to help pay for costs associated with the spill.

(Reporting By Kristen Hays; Editing by Terry Wade, Cynthia Osterman and David Gregorio)

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