It could have been a lot like the BP spill now shooting crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Ten years ago, the pipe from an offshore drilling rig came loose and the valve that is supposed to shut off the flow of oil did not work. The drilling rig above could not control the valve, called a blow-out preventer.
There was no river of crude like that currently bearing down on the Gulf Coast. But it highlighted that the rig, a floating outfit like the now-sunken Deepwater Horizon, did not have a backup system for activating the blow-out preventer.
That alarmed Minerals Management Service officials enough to to send out a "safety alert" ordering companies drilling in deep water in the outer continental shelf to have good backup systems.
"The MMS considers a backup BOP actuation system to be an essential component of a deepwater drilling system," the March 2000 notice said, "and therefore expects OCS operators to have reliable back-up systems for actuating the BOP."
But MMS left it up to the companies to decide what kind of backup system to have. And Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) wants to know why. Nelson has warned others about the possibility of spills for years as he fought growing pressure to allow drilling off the Florida coast. Now, he has gone from warning to pointing.
Nelson has asked the Interior Department's acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, to investigate why the service did not require drillers to use a specific type of backup system used in other major offshore drilling countries, a remote-control shutoff called an acoustic switch. He has raised the prospect that lobbying by the oil and gas industry kept regulators at bay on the issue.
"I ask that you determine in your investigation the extent to which the oil and natural gas industry exercised influence in the agency's rulemaking process," Nelson wrote to Kendall this week.
MMS's regulation of the oil and gas industry has come under scrutiny before. In 2008, then-Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney found massive misconduct at the service, saying employees rigged contracts and engaged in illegal moonlighting, drugs, sex and gift-taking from oil companies. Devaney is now the inspector general for Obama's $787 billion stimulus package.
But that scandal was more about how much oil companies would pay in royalties. In this case, 11 people are dead and the Gulf Coast is bracing for an environmental disaster. The BP well is shooting oil into the Gulf at the rate of 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, per day -- some say more. And it could keep going for three months or more until BP can drill a "relief well" to slow the spill.
In the wake of the MMS scandal, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar chose a former inspector general and prosecutor, Wilma Lewis, to oversee the agency as assistant secretary.
MMS did look at the issue of whether to require the acoustic switch. It commissioned a report from West Engineering Services of Brookshire, Texas, that looked at "Secondary Intervention Methods in Well Control." But it found that acoustic switches were too expensive and not always reliable.
"Acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly, and there is insufficient data available on system reliability in the presence of a mud or gas plume," the 2003 report said. "However, acoustic communication in the form of verification of system status and remote arming should be considered."
The acoustic systems cost about $500,000, The Wall Street Journal reported last week, which is about the same amount it cost for BP to lease the rig for one day from its owner and operator, Transocean Ltd., per day. The replacement cost of the Deepwater Horizon is estimated at $560 million. BP is now spending $6 million or more each day to try to staunch the spill.
And the same engineers who recommended against the acoustic switches found in 2004 that as companies move into ever deeper water, they did not always understand the risks. Some of the rigs being used in deep water, it said, could not assure that they could seal their well in the event of an accident.
"As smaller operators with limited appreciation of the risks venture into ever deeper water, the industry's risk increases," the report said. "It appears that at least some of the rigs currently in operation have not considered critical issues necessary to ensure that their shear rams will shear the drill pipe and seal the wellbore."
BP and Transocean, though, are among the largest companies in their field.
Nelson last week called for a pause in drilling operations, advice that the Obama administration has reportedly taken, though no administration officials have publicly stated that there is a suspension of permitting activity.
Click here to read the MMS safety alert.
Click here to read the MMS-commissioned report, "Evaluation of Secondary Intervention Methods in Well Control."
Click here to read the MMS-commissioned report, "Shear Ram Capabilities Study."