Massive bolts that secure subsea oil equipment are failing, causing expensive shutdowns and giving rise to issues on safety about the subsea wells located in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2013, the Department of the Interior (DOI) started conducting an investigation after a General Electric Co. oil-exploration equipment business declared a worldwide recall for defective bolts that have corroded and snapped, incidences that bring about possibilities of major oil leaks, which could have devastating consequences.
The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, was linked to a record spike in deaths in marine animals, particularly bottlenose dolphins. The BP-owned Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up in April 2010, killing 11 people. It spilled more than 4 million barrels' worth of unprocessed oil before it was sealed five months later. Cleaning up oil spills can be a costly and painstaking process.
Based on the results of the investigation and following two other bolt failures, industry officials and safety regulators think that the problem is beyond GE and its blowout preventers, which are mechanical devices that are used to seal, monitor and control oil and gas wells to prevent the unwanted release of crude oil or natural gas.
Flaws were also discovered in bolts for blowout preventers that were manufactured by competitors of GE.
Manufacturers and regulators said that several factors could be behind the bolt failures. A working group is currently looking into metallurgical data to know if the alloys that are used in the heavy steel bolts are hard enough to survive the harsh environment underwater and if the coatings that are used on the bolts are appropriate.
They are also studying if "over-torquing," which happens when subcontractors excessively tighten the fasteners, causes them to weaken. GE said that over-torquing is possibly a factor that contributed to its bolt failures.
Regulators noted that the bolt failures stretch back at least 13 years ago. These have not resulted in any oil leaks yet but these are being considered a very critical matter. The bolt issue may affect more than 2,400 platforms and oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, 23 off the coast of California and an active rig on the outer continental shelf in Alaska.
According to Allyson Anderson Book from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, "If your smallest component fails, you can't expect a sophisticated many-million-dollar piece of equipment" to hold fast and prevent a leak.
GE said that the components are subjected to exhaustive safety tests before they are delivered to customers. A spokeswoman said the company is currently working with the DOI to work on the issues and has already provided replacement parts to customers.