Wednesday, June 2, 2010

CAW Asks the Question: How Safe are CA Oil Platforms From an Oil Spill?

After the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there has been a lot of speculation about whether a similar catastrophe could occur off the coast of California. There are currently 27 offshore oil platforms and 5 oil islands operating off California's coast - much less than in the Gulf of Mexico. However, it only takes one similar failure to create an equally devastating environmental and economic crisis. In an effort to start a dialogue about the safety of California offshore platforms, Brendan Applegate, an Exercise Manager at CAW, spoke with a representative of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), who explained the critical differences.

What he found is that there are several significant differences between BP's Deepwater Horizon platform that exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico and what is being used here in California that make it unlikely that such an incident would occur here.

During an Oil Platform Security Exercise conducted by CAW in 2008, platform operators from Venoco and Pacific Energy spoke of a "failsafe" mechanism installed at the bottom of the ocean, below the mudline, that would keep oil leaks similar to the one currently spoiling the Gulf from occurring. The Blowout Prevention Valve (BOP) that failed on the Deepwater Horizon platform is significantly different than the Subsurface Safety Valves in use by the majority of platforms off Califonia's coast. These valves are installed upon completion of drilling and the BOP is used as a temporary failsafe during the drilling process.

Only one platform off the California coast is currently conducting drilling operations and utilizing a BOP device. But even this BOP is different than the one that failed in the Gulf. The Deepwater Horizon Platform in the Gulf was a movable semi-submersible platform that utilized a sea-floor level BOP. All platforms off California are permanent facilities, anchored directly to the seafloor, and operate with a BOP at the platform level, which makes it much easier to access, repair, and control in the event of catastrophic equipment failure.

MMS explained that the drilling climate in California is stricter than in the Gulf of Mexico, due to heightened environmental awareness, anti-drilling sentiment, and the presence of multiple “watch dog” organizations. Equipment off California is held to a stricter standard and tested more frequently than in the Gulf, making an incident similar to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill unlikely.

After the Deepwater Horizon incident, MMS continues to exercise its in-place processes to make sure platform equipment is being maintained and inspected to ensure this will not happen in California or again in the Gulf.

CAW continues to pursue training and exercise opportunities with local and regional respnse agencies concerning the safety and security of offshore oil platforms. For more information on the OPLEX exercise series or if you would like to sponsor a research/exercise series, please contact Alan Jaeger at 805-989-1786

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