Government report shows cursory testing with no detailed engineering data
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Some observers are hoping for the best when it comes to Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling plans, because the company clearly is not prepared for the worst, at least when it comes to testing critical equipment needed to prevent massive blowouts like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
After dragging it’s feet for a while, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement finally released all the information it had on last summer’s testing of a well-head capping stack system.
All the information on that test was included on less than a single page of typed text.
“I was shocked,” said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor who requested the testing report under the Freedom of Information Act. “I was expecting 50 or 70 pages … with pressure tests, detailed engineering info, graphs … it’s a critical piece of equipment in a blow-out,” said Steiner, an oil spill expert and board member of an environmental watchdog group.
The idea is to lower the capping stack system over a busted well head, a tricky and delicate task in the best of conditions and potentially a significant challenge in the sometimes extreme Arctic Ocean conditions.
Yet Shell and the BSSE apparently were able to complete the testing in a single day.
“To say that these tests were rigorous or comprehensive is certainly a stretch,” Steiner said. “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.”
At best, the tests were only partial and cursory and didn’t include any independent analyis of the results, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 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 in the remote Chukchi Sea, according to PEER staff counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed a federal lawsuit against BSSE to force the release of its report.
“The first test merely showed that Shell could dangle its cap in 200 feet of water without dropping it,” Douglass said. “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.”
According to PEER, the superficial testing puts into question the agency’s claim in press statements that it had conducted “comprehensive” testing to meet “rigorous new standards.”
“I think we caught them in a disingenuous statement to the public. It makes me worried as all heck and it doesn’t inspire confidence,” said Steiner, adding that PEER will continued to advocate for better testing with verification of the results by outside engineering experts.
The situation speaks directly to the question of whether federal oversight of the drilling process is adequate — something Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has promised, he added.
The testing took place over less than two hours in the Puget Sound on June 25 and 26 and involved only two BSSE officials and Shell.
The first day, they “wet” or dropped the capping stack, to a depth of 200 feet but did not try to attach it to a simulation well-head. The second set of tests, which appear to have been conducted on dry land, were a “pressure test of the capping stack.”
According to PEER, 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 amid rough seas. The test report doesn’t indicate what sort of pressure levels were tested.
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.