On a deepwater oil rig, perhaps the most crucial piece of safety equipment is a device called the blowout preventer, or BOP. The BOP's function is to prevent gas and oil from rushing too quickly up into the pipe inside the rig, which can cause the sort of explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon. Imagine pinching a rubber hose with your fingers to stop the flow of water, and you've got the basic concept, except that your hand would have to be more than 50 feet (15 meters) in length and weigh more than 300 tons, according to Newsweek. Instead of fingers, the BOP is equipped with a powerful tool called a shear ram, which cuts into the pipe to shut off the flow of oil and gas. Unfortunately, in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the BOP failed to do its job.
Federal regulators hope to prevent those problems the next time around by requiring better documentation that BOPs are in working order, and better training for crew members who operate them. As added insurance, they now mandate that BOPs be equipped with more powerful shears, capable of cutting through the outer pipe even when subjected to the highest water pressure expected at that depth.
In addition, BP has announced that it will exceed federal requirements on its rigs in the Gulf by equipping its BOPs with at least two shear rams instead of one, and will also keep an additional set of shear rams on each rig as a backup. Additionally, BP says that whenever one of its undersea BOPs is brought to the surface for testing and maintenance, it will bring in an independent inspector to verify that the work is being done properly.