When an oil rig has an uncontrolled oil pressure buildup -- like the one thought to have set off the explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig last week -- a device called a blowout preventer (BOP) is supposed to deliver a hydraulic-powered "guillotine"-like slice to the drill pipe, crimping and sealing it off.
BOPs are mandated on all U.S. offshore oil rigs and are supposed to undergo regular inspection. Several studies have shown them to be increasingly reliable; however, they are not flawless.
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Indeed, last year in an earnings call for Transocean, the owner of Deepwater Horizon, CEO Steve Newman told reporters: "We had a handful of BOP problems; nothing that I would characterize as systemic or quarter specific. ... We are going back to address them in our management system so they don't happen again. They were anomalies."
But an especially disastrous BOP problem seems to be precisely the reason that oil is spewing into the Gulf of Mexico right now. Oil giant BP, which leased Deepwater Horizon from Transocean (and has thus far taken the lion's share of the blame for the incident), reportedly is focusing on the BOP issue in its internal investigation.
"We don't know why the BOP failed to stop the flow," BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles told the trade publication UpstreamOnline. "Ultimately we will recover the BOP, get it to the surface and find out."
According to BP, workers attempted to activate the BOP manually from the top of the rig before they were evacuated, but nothing happened. (As the website ScienceInsider points out, the BOP should have automatically activated anyway.) After the rig sank, BP and the Coast Guard resorted to using robotic submarines to try to trigger the BOP underwater, to no avail.
Now BP appears to be ready to drill a new hole in order to fill the well with cement, an operation that will take at least three months -- a delay that could result in the leakage of millions more gallons of oil.
Yet while both BP and Transocean have issued public apologies following the explosion and subsequent leak, the company that actually manufactured the BOP in place on Deepwater Horizon has remained curiously reticent about its role.
Cameron International, formerly known as Cooper Cameron, is the worldwide leader in providing BOPs to offshore rigs, according to industry website RigZone. The Houston oil and gas systems company has been recognized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for creating the first blowout preventer of its kind, all the way back in 1922.
More recently, Cameron won a $230 million-plus contract to provide Chevron with subsea-development safety equipment. The hefty deal underscores Cameron's generally rosy financial picture: Its earnings rose 5 percent in the first quarter of this year.
In an earnings call Thursday, CEO Jack Moore admitted that Cameron had supplied the BOP on the Deepwater Horizon. He continued:
Even before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Cameron took the performance of its BOPs very seriously. In an internal document describing the challenges of manufacturing BOPs for offshore drilling platforms, Cameron engineer Mel Whitby wrote: "When the BOP is called on to function in an emergency situation, it is the main barrier protecting human life, capital equipment and the environment." The company was quite confident of its ability to provide such a product, though, boasting in a brochure that it "has a reputation for providing the most reliable drilling systems in the industry."Although we have had no one on the rig at the time of the accident, Cameron personnel have been working around the clock with Transocean, BP and others to bring the well under control. Everyone has questions as to what may have caused this accident to occur. While I'm sure that this answer will come once the full investigation is completed, our focus at this time is on assisting Transocean and BP to get this well shut-in.
AOL News was unsuccessful in attempts to reach Cameron for further comment. However, one person willing to comment on the record was a former Cameron quality-control employee who worked briefly at the plant in Beziers, France, where it is believed the BOP for Deepwater Horizon was manufactured.
That employee, Sebastiaen Ricciardi, said that although he did not directly oversee BOP production, it was his "personal feeling that all quality-control measures were always taken very seriously." However, he remarked, "it is always possible that some mistakes could have occurred, as is the case with any large manufacturing operation."