Long before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, caught fire, sank and loosed a gusher of oil that would flow into the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, the oil industry knew that — in the now famous words of the Apollo 13 astronauts — “Houston, we have a problem.”
As oil drilling in the new millennium moved increasingly into deep waters off the North American and European coasts, oilfield workers recognized they were operating with less and less of a safety net. Shear ram technology needed to make blowout preventers into failsafe devices capable of preventing catastrophic blowouts was, they knew, lagging behind the rest of oilfield technology.
A U.S. Minerals Management Service study had demonstrated as much in 2002. A more thorough study in 2004 had only served to underline the weaknesses. By 2005, Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corp., then a force in offshore drilling, had begun working with Houston-based Cameron, the major producer of blowout preventers, to develop new and better shear and seal technology for wells.
Why the technology never made it into the oil patch is unclear. Nobody in the industry wants to talk about it at this juncture, though development reportedly is continuing. What would come to to be called the alternative well kill system — or AWKS — is now being spearheaded by Chevron in partnership with Cameron. Devon began phasing out of offshore drilling earlier this year.