Blowout preventer: Why the Gulf oil rig continues to leak

In many of the stories I’ve read about the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, the leaking oil rig is always mentioned but rarely with any explanation of why it won’t stop leaking. This is essential to understanding the severity of the problem, the cause of the explosion, and how an oil rig works.

This will be brief, but it’s important — all oil rigs in the United States are fitted with a blowout preventer to control pressure during oil drilling. If too much pressure builds up in an oil rig, there could be an explosion — the blowout preventer is a valve, so it can be closed and the crew and get the pressure under control.

A blowout preventer looks like this (and sits atop an oil drilling well):

Blowout preventers are supposed to automatically¬†seal off the well when there is an uncontrolled build up of pressure, but the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig did not do that — therefore, the valve stayed open, the pressure was overwhemling, and this likely caused the explosion.

Before evacuating, crew members tried to engage the blowout preventer manually in order to close the valve, but it didn’t work. After the oil rig sank, BP and the U.S. Coastguard used robotic submarines to try to engage the blowout preventer underwater, but that also didn’t work.

So, the oil continues to spill into the ocean because the only thing that can stop the flow of oil — the blowout preventer — malfunctioned and didn’t automatically enable itself when the pressure got too high and doesn’t respond to any other attempts to close the valve either.

Until BP can find a way to either siphon the oil (currently the plan to cover the rig with a four-story containment box is failing because ice crystals are clogging the top of the dome) or plug the valve (currently they are thinking of using garbage to do this), the leak will continue.

It’s important to know not only that thousands of gallons of oil are flowing uncontrollably into the ocean, but why this is happening. A piece of equipment malfunctioned, and that piece of equipment was integral in stopping and controlling oil leaks.

What makes it difficult is that although blowout preventers have failed before, they’ve never sunk in waters as deep as those of the Gulf of Mexico. So strategies that worked in shallower waters are already not showing the same successful results when applied in deep ocean waters.


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