05/29/2010 06:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gulf Oil Spill: The Technology Oil Executives Don't Want to Talk About

Long before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, caught fire, sank and loosed a gusher of oil that would flow into the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, the oil industry knew that -- in the now famous words of the Apollo 13 astronauts -- "Houston, we have a problem."

As oil drilling in the new millennium moved increasingly into deep waters off the North American and European coasts, oilfield workers recognized they were operating with less and less of a safety net. Shear ram technology needed to make blowout preventers into failsafe devices capable of preventing catastrophic blowouts was, they knew, lagging behind the rest of oilfield technology.

A U.S. Minerals Management Service study had demonstrated as much in 2002. A more thorough study in 2004 had only served to underline the weaknesses. By 2005, Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corp., then a force in offshore drilling, had begun working with Houston-based Cameron, the major producer of blowout preventers, to develop new and better shear and seal technology for wells.

Why the technology never made it into the oil patch is unclear. Nobody in the industry wants to talk about it at this juncture, though development reportedly is continuing. What would come to be called the alternative well kill system -- or AWKS -- is now being spearheaded by Chevron in partnership with Cameron. Devon began phasing out of offshore drilling earlier this year.

Ironically, it signed a $7 billion deal in March to sell its offshore assets in Brazil, Azerbaijan and the Gulf of Mexico to BP. Only about a month later BP was in charge of the Deepwater Horizon rig that blew up in the Gulf. London-based BP, the major player in the Alaska oil business, has ever since been battling to shut off an undersea volcano spewing beneath the sunken rig and deal with an oil slick that has grown to more than two times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound.

Cleanup and containment costs, at last report from BP, were approaching $1 billion and are expected to grow to orders of magnitude beyond that. This might all have been avoided if there had been a working, failsafe blowout preventer a mile deep on the ocean beneath the Horizon. There was a blowout preventer. Why it didn't work hasn't been fully determined, but the reasons why it might not work were known well before the Horizon accident.

Chevron noted in a presentation to the Norway Arctic Workshop in Tromso in January 2009 that existing BOPs have weaknesses. The company said in a PowerPoint presentation that it was working with Cameron on the AWKS to develop "simultaneous shear and seal capability on a broad range of tubulars -- unlike current shear rams." Everyone in attendance at the meeting knew what that last phrase meant.

A mini-study done for the MMS in 2002 and a lengthy "Shear Ram Capabilities Study" completed two years later had concluded that some of the new higher-grade steel being used in drill pipe couldn't be cut and sealed by existing rams. The study also noted the inability of existing rams to cut and seal pipe if there were tools inside, or slice through welded joints where sections of pipe were joined.

These inherent weaknesses in existing BOPs were the reason many Arctic nations -- although not the U.S. -- required oil companies to keep a second drill rig on location when drilling in case a relief well was needed to seal a blowout. BP, it should be noted, did not have a second rig on site in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has one there now, drilling a relief well. Everyone involved with the Gulf spill says a relief well is the only sure way to cap BP's undersea gusher. The relief well is expected to be completed in August. There is no telling how much crude could be washing around in the Gulf of Mexico by then -- or making its way into the Gulf Stream with potential oil spill consequences for Florida and the entire U.S. East Coast.

The reason BP failed to have a second drill rig standing by in the Gulf when the Deepwater Horizon was drilling is simple -- money. A drill rig costs about a half million dollars per day, according to oil industry officials. These costs are the reason that, although Shell planned to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska this summer, none of the oil companies holding leases off the Arctic coast of Canada planned any drilling.