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Lapses Found in Oversight of Failsafe Device on Oil Rig

David Barstow, Laura Dodd, James Glanz, Stephanie Saul and Ian Urbina.
New York Times
June 21, 2010

It was the last line of defense, the final barrier between the rushing volcanic fury of oil and gas and one of the worst environmental disasters in United States history.

Its very name — the blind shear ram — suggested its blunt purpose. When all else failed, if the crew of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig lost control of a well, if a dreaded blowout came, the blind shear ram’s two tough blades were poised to slice through the drill pipe, seal the well and save the day. Everything else could go wrong, just so long as “the pinchers” went right. All it took was one mighty stroke.

On the night of April 20, minutes after an enormous blowout ripped through the Deepwater Horizon, the rig’s desperate crew pinned all hope on this last line of defense.

But the line did not hold.

For days, technicians and engineers worked furiously to figure out why, according to interviews and hundreds of pages of previously unreleased notes scrawled by industry crisis managers in the disaster’s immediate aftermath.

Engineers sent robotic submersibles 5,000 feet deep to prod the blind shear ram, nestled in the bosom of a five-story blowout preventer standing guard over the Macondo well.

They were driven on, documents and interviews reveal, by indications that the shear ram’s blades had come within a few maddening inches of achieving their purpose. Again and again, they tried to make the blades close completely, knowing it was their best chance to end the nightmare of oil and gas billowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“If that would’ve worked,” a senior oil industry executive said of the blind shear ram, “that rig wouldn’t have burned up and sunk.”

Much remains unknown about the failure of this ultimate failsafe device. It continues to be a focus of inquiries, and some crucial questions will not be answerable until the blowout preventer is recovered from the sea.

But from documents and interviews, it is possible to piece together some of the decisions and events that came into play when the Deepwater Horizon most needed the blind shear ram.

Engineers contended with hydraulic fluid leaks that may have deprived the ram of crucial cutting force. They struggled to comprehend what was going on in the steel sarcophagus that encased the shear ram, as if trying to perform surgery blindfolded.

They wondered if the blades had by chance closed uselessly on one of the nearly indestructible joints that connect drilling pipe — a significant bit of misfortune, given a decision years before to outfit the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer with just one blind shear ram when other rigs were already beginning to use two of them to guard against just this possibility.

But the questions raised by the failure of the blind shear ram extend well beyond the Deepwater Horizon.

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