For investigators trying to determine why the Gulf of Mexico oil spill could not be stopped at the source, the case may hinge on recovering the blowout preventer — a bus-sized device that failed on the sea floor when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and burned on April 20.
Salvaging the 325-ton piece of equipment from 5,000 feet below the surface, a depth at which divers cannot operate, will present an array of technical challenges. But experts say the key to the operation goes beyond technology to something much simpler: money.
“We could put (it) on the moon if the need was there,” said Daniel Schwall, managing director of Titan Salvage, based in Pompano Beach, Fla. “Today, nothing is impossible. It is just a matter of funding.”
When Deepwater Horizon exploded and burned, the blowout preventer — a series of valves, shears and rams housed in a 53-foot-tall tower — did not activate automatically as designed to seal the drill pipe and cut off the flow of oil. Rig operator BP Plc. then attempted to activate the unit electronically from a ship and manually with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), but the efforts failed.
The resulting spill, estimated by federal officials at more than 200 million gallons, has become the largest in U.S. history.
To prevent a similar disaster, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Minerals Management Service have called for the recovery and analysis of “critical drilling and blowout preventer equipment.” That will require removing the tower from the drill pipe, securing it and lifting it to the surface, a painstaking operation, but one that can be accomplished given the scope of today’s technology, Schwall said.
“The challenges all have solutions that can be provided by salvage engineering,” he said, declining to discuss specifics of what the operation would entail. “Technology has made nearly everything possible in regard to marine salvage, but at a price.”
While the depth of the water will present difficulties, equipment already deployed in the gulf shows that the recovery operation can be successful, said Richard Fredricks, director of the American Salvage Association.
“Certainly this is a deep case, but it’s not the deepest case,” he said. “This blowout preventer, frankly, is not all that large an object compared to other vessels and structures.”
Undersea work below 1,000 feet — the limit for divers — falls to ROVs controlled by operators on ships. A typical ROV is about 11 feet long and 5 feet wide and weighs 8,500 pounds. They can dive to 10,000 feet and carry payloads of 900 pounds.
ROVs equipped with propulsion thrusters, lights, cameras and manipulator arms have been in the spotlight during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, taking the lead in attempts to cap the well and relaying digital imagery to the world above. Most news organizations have received underwater video of the spill from an ROV controlled by operators aboard Skandi Neptune, a Norwegian offshore support vessel.
“Today’s technology includes dynamically positioned vessels, listening equipment and winches, and inspection and work ROVs,” Fredricks said. “The technology is there and it’s available, and we see it in the field right now working to control the current (problem). … Salvaging the blowout preventer is certainly possible and is a function of funding more than anything else.”
Paying for the operation will likely be the responsibility of BP, which has agreed to set aside $20 billion to cover the costs of stopping the spill, cleaning it up and compensating victims. Neither Schwall nor Fredricks would estimate how much the operation might cost; officials at BP did not respond to calls for comment.
The technology available to recover the blowout preventer could also be used to raise Deepwater Horizon, but Schwall and Fredricks both questioned the need to do so. The rig sank after being damaged by fire.
“I would think, again, that it’s a function of funding, but I would have to first ask why anyone would want that damaged vessel recovered from such a great depth of water,” Fredricks said. “What need would be great enough to justify going to the expense and challenge of recovering such a large vessel, considering the fire and the damage it must have suffered or may have suffered on impact with the bottom?”
Schwall agreed, saying investigators can obtain forensic evidence about the explosion by recovering portions of the rig without raising the structure in its entirety.