Could Additional Safety Device Have Prevented Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded last week was not outfitted with a safety device that might have prevented the massive oil spill now nearing the U.S. Gulf Coast. The device, known as an acoustic switch, is a last-resort protection against underwater spills, and is required by regulators in Norway and Brazil. Unfortunately, the U.S. has no such regulation for oil wells operating off of its shores.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, an acoustic switch is a remote control device that a crew can use in an attempt to trigger an underwater valve that shuts down a well that’s damaged. The switch is meant as a last resort, as the primary shut-off systems almost always work on wells when they are out of control. It can be triggered from a lifeboat if an oil platform has to be evacuated.

According to the Journal, U.S regulators did consider requiring the acoustic switch on offshore wells, but drilling companies resisted because of its cost, and questions about its effectiveness. To be fair, the switches have never been tested in real-world situations, only simulations. U.S. regulators also maintain they are prone to causing unnecessary shutdowns.

Still, while U.S. regulators and some oil producers have doubts about the acoustic switch, a spokesperson for Norway’s Petroleum Safety Authority told the Journal the switches have a good track record in the North Sea. In addition to mandates in Norway and Brazil, some oil producers, including Royal Dutch Shell PLC and France’s Total SA, sometimes use the device even when it’s not required, the Journal said.

Industry critics cite the lack of the device as a sign U.S. drilling policy has been too lax, and say it shows the oil industry has too much say in what regulations are adopted here.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Minerals Management Service told the Journal that the agency ultimately decided against requiring acoustic switches because it determined most rigs already had back-up systems of some kind.

BP, which leases the Deepwater Horizon rig from TransOcean Ltd, has had no success using such back-up systems to stem the oil leaking from that well. As a result, the well is now spilling as much as 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil spill is moving closer to shore, and could hit the coast tomorrow. An environmental disaster of epic proportions may be in the offing.

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