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Improved safety device could prevent BP-type oil spills

Oil sheen is seen with vessels assisting near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 23, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. The National Academy of Engineering is recommending that oil and gas companies spend millions on a modified blowout preventer. This is the $45 million device that failed and caused the oil spill.

Jeremy Hobson: Well it's been two years since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And today, officials from government and the industry will look at one item that was central to the spill: the blowout preventer.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: Blowout preventers are office building-sized machines that sit on the ocean floor, the last line of defense to keep crude from gushing out of a busted oil well. A new one costs up to $50 million.

Sounds like a lot.

Roger McCarthy: But small compared to the cost of cleaning up five million barrels of oil.

Roger McCarthy helped write the National Academy of Engineering report on blowout preventers. He presents findings to the oil industry today. McCarthy says offshore oil and gas drillers have self-regulated since the disaster.

McCarthy: I don't think the shortcuts, for lack of a better word, that were taken during the drilling of the Macondo well would be taken by any driller in the Gulf today.

But he says many oil wells still use the same blowout preventer that failed for BP. Only federal regulation can force an industry-wide switch to better technology. Not everyone thinks new blowout preventers are the key.

Tim Vandenberg: I think there's some in the industry that think they work fine.

Tim Vandenberg at Washington Analytics says it depends on how you see the BP spill: as a human failure or a technical one. Some companies say better training can do just as much good, and cost less than new technology.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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