NEW ORLEANS — Oil industry and government officials could get caught flat-footed again by another deep-water blowout in the coming months because they have yet to incorporate many of the lessons learned during the BP disaster, experts inside and outside the business say.
For one thing, it could be another year before a bigger, better cap-and-siphon containment system is developed to choke off leaks many thousands of feet below the surface. Also, existing skimmers still don't have the capacity to quickly suck up millions of gallons of oil flowing at once.
Environmental experts, industry veterans, and government officials also said the industry needs better technology and more thorough testing and analysis to prevent blowouts from happening in the first place.
Despite an overhaul of the federal agency that regulates the industry, there are lingering doubts about whether the government can effectively police Big Oil at the same time it relies on the industry for revenue.
"It's going to take five years before all those lessons are fleshed out and can be implemented," warned Ed Overton, a Louisiana State University environmental sciences professor.
The Obama Administration's moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is set to expire Nov. 30 and could be lifted even sooner amid pressure from the industry and its allies.
BP recently signaled that it realizes there is still a lot of work to do, firing a top official responsible for deep-water wells. It also has welcomed a new CEO, the first American ever to lead the British company.
Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the industry group American Petroleum Institute, acknowledged room for improvement. But he insisted that the industry learned from the BP disaster, which began with a rig explosion April 20 that killed 11 workers. The blown-out well spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude before it was capped in mid-July.
"If this happens again, the difference will be it will get capped a heck of a lot quicker," Mr. Milito said.
Exxon Mobil Corp. is leading a coalition of oil companies building a system to contain an oil leak in up to 10,000 feet of water — twice the depth of the BP blowout.
BP recently joined the $1 billion project and agreed to submit the equipment it used to eventually kill its runaway well. But it could be 16 months before the system is completed, tested, and ready to be used. Drawings of the proposed system show a cap and a series of undersea devices — including cables, a riser, a manifold, and a piece of equipment that would pump dispersant. Lines would be hooked up to vessels on the surface.
Cleaning up oil once it reaches the surface still poses problems. Even with a fleet of large skimmers used during the BP crisis, the process was slow going at times. Industry experts and others are pressing for development of more effective skimmer technology.
Industry and the government also are faced with trying to prevent such a disaster in the first place.
In its own report on the blast, BP acknowledged among other things that it misinterpreted a key pressure test of its well before the explosion. BP, which was leasing the rig from Transocean, also blamed employees from both companies for failing to respond to other warning signs that the well was in danger of blowing out.
Testimony before a federal investigative panel showed that real-time data from the rig was available to BP managers on shore, but not to Transocean. And two men who were key to the successful operation of the rig — one for BP and one for Transocean — rarely had contact with each other, according to testimony.
Elgie Holstein, a former Energy Department official who now works for an environmental group, said it is a problem that real-time data on a well's ability to withstand pressure is usually only transmitted from the rig to the headquarters of the company in charge of the well. He said data should be made available more widely to industry experts, a safety consortium, or government safety officials so they can determine if the readings are being interpreted correctly.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently cited the need for more effective sensors in key components such as blowout preventers that can quickly detect whether the devices are functioning properly. In the BP episode, the blowout preventer failed to clamp off the flow of oil. Investigators are trying to figure out why.
Preventing another such disaster is going to require a change in the industry's safety culture, some experts say.
BP's new CEO recently announced creation of a special unit to police safety practices throughout the company.
"Our response to the incident needs to go beyond deep-water drilling," Bob Dudley said. "There are lessons for us relating to the way we operate … and the way we manage risk."
By law, BP had a major role in cleaning up the spill. But retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who was in charge of the government's response to the crisis, recently proposed that in the event of another such disaster, a third party from the oil and gas industry that does not have a stake in the polluter's profits coordinate the cleanup.
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