BP agreed to parts changes on oil rig, 2004 letter shows

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010

BP agreed in 2004 to the installation of a test valve and replacement of another key part on the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer, even though it acknowledged that doing so would reduce redundancies and increase risks on the drilling rig.

The agreement was the subject of a letter, obtained by The Washington Post, written by rig owner Transocean and signed by a BP representative.

BP told members of Congress this month that it did not know about a reconfiguration of the blowout preventer. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), after reviewing information provided by BP, called the test valve "useless" and questioned Transocean about its placement. He said BP told his subcommittee that while oil was spilling into the Gulf of Mexico the company spent "an entire day's worth of precious time . . . engaging rams that closed the wrong way" because a test valve was in the place where BP expected to find a variable bore ram capable of pinching off the oil flow.

BP and Transocean have said there were still more than the number of rams required by the Minerals Management Service. Rams are devices designed to cut off surging oil and natural gas after a well blowout like the one that set the Deepwater Horizon on fire on April 20 and started the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But given the failure of the blowout preventer to stop the explosion and oil spill, investigators are looking closely at every aspect of the operation. It remains unclear what caused, and what might have stopped, the spill.

In the letter, dated Oct. 11, 2004, Transocean senior marketing executive Christopher S. Young wrote to document an agreement with BP that Transocean would convert a variable bore ram with a test ram at BP's expense.

He said that by signing the letter, BP would be acknowledging that the conversion "will reduce the built-in redundancy" of the blowout preventer, "thereby potentially increasing Contractor's risk profile."

A BP representative signed the letter on Oct. 19, 2004. A company spokesman said Saturday that Transocean was responsible for any modifications.

A variable bore ram can clamp down and seal openings around pipes of different sizes. It is one of a series of rams on a blowout preventer designed to stop the flow of oil and gas if a driller loses control of the pressure in a well. After installing the test valve, two variable bore rams still remained on the blowout preventer.

Some companies have advocated the permanent installation of test valves on the blowout preventer to save time and money during testing.

When the issue came up during the May 12 hearing of the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations, Transocean chief executive Steven Newman said modifications to the blowout preventer were done in 2005 at BP's request and expense. BP America President Lamar McKay then said, "I don't personally know whether those were the exact modifications" that BP discovered after the accident "or [whether] there were additional ones. And I think that's a very, very important piece of the investigation."

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