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Scant Testing for Arctic Blowout Capping System
Safety Agency Can Produce Only One Page of Notes to Demonstrate Cap Reliability
WASHINGTON - September 5 - The key system for preventing a repeat of the massive Gulf of Mexico blowout in the sensitive waters of the Arctic underwent only partial and cursory testing with no independent analysis of the results, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which obtained the federal testing data. As a result, federal overseers are again completely relying upon industry assurances of safety as Royal Dutch Shell prepares to begin drilling this week in the remote Chukchi Sea.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all “records pertaining to results of Shell oil company’s testing of its well-head capping stack that would be used in response to a well-head blowout in its Arctic drilling program,” the Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement (BSEE is an arm of the Interior Department, formerly within the Minerals Management Service) could produce only one document – a one-page set of notes. This slim production belied the agency’s claim in press statements that it had conducted “comprehensive” testing to meet “rigorous new standards.”
The field-testing took place over less than two hours in Puget Sound on June 25th and 26th and involved only two BSEE officials and Shell. The first day, they lowered the capping stack to a depth of 200 feet, but did not try to attach it to a simulated wellhead and blowout preventer (BOP), as would be necessary in a real-world blowout. The second set of tests, which appear to have been conducted on dry land, were a “pressure test of the capping stack” but those tests –
- Were run for minutes, not hours, despite the fact that any capping system would need to withstand hours, days or weeks of pressure in icy conditions, and subjected to many variables;
- Initially lacked a “low-pressure test,” though Shell claimed it would perform this test later; and
- Went unmonitored by an independent engineer or any third party. Other than these skimpy notes, BSEE produced no evidence of what the testing actually showed.
The BSEE report asserts that the “stump test” (in which valves and cylinders are tested onshore) “was successful,” but provides no substantiation for this, such as specific procedures conducted or actual results.
“To say that these tests were rigorous or comprehensive is certainly a stretch,” remarked Rick Steiner, an expert in oil spill response and a retired University of Alaska professor and PEER board member, who submitted the FOIA request. “A simple emissions test report for my car is far more rigorous than what BSEE has produced for Shell's Arctic capping stack. From this, we still don’t know that this critical piece of equipment will work if needed.”
The miniscule record produced by BSEE echoes criticisms about the agency’s inability to document the availability and the reliability of blowout prevention and response equipment leveled by the Government Accountability Office earlier this year.
“The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200 feet of water without dropping it,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed a federal lawsuit against BSSE to force the release of its report. “The second test showed the capping system could hold up under laboratory conditions for up to 15 minutes without crumpling. Neither result should give the American public much comfort.”