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5 Improvements in Offshore Oil Drilling

Improved Preparedness for Future Blowouts

After the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April 2010, engineers struggled to figure out how to contain and stop the spill. As oil industry officials later admitted during Congressional hearings, they were unprepared to deal with a disaster a mile underwater, and so the emergency team was forced to use tactics improvised on the fly, from trying to use robots to force the BOP's shear rams closed, to lowering a 100-ton containment dome over the leaking well. It took them until mid-July to succeed in installing a device called a capping stack, which finally stopped the uncontrolled flow of oil. After that, they were able to perform a "top kill," in which they pumped mud and cement down through the well to block it, and then drilled a relief well to handle the remaining oil.

If there's a plus side to the catastrophe, it's that if and when another such deepwater blowout occurs, we'll be much better prepared. To deal with the Deepwater Horizon, the oil industry had to quickly design and create an assortment of new equipment, including a fleet of vessels modified to collect the oil spill, and a special system of pipes for performing a top kill and diverting oil flow. Additionally, engineers had to figure out how to utilize underwater robots to perform complex construction tasks, and had to become adept at using remote sensing technology to monitor conditions thousands of feet below on the Gulf floor.

Since the accident, BP has developed the Containment Disposal Project, a blueprint for how to use existing technology to respond quickly to oil spills based on the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Additionally, a group of major oil drillers -- ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell -- have formed the Marine Well Containment Company, a new outfit that aims to develop more advanced systems for controlling blowouts.