MIAMI — Just weeks before exploding in the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon’s drill struck a hidden pocket of natural gas, rocking the massive rig with what drillers call a “kick.”

Gas surged up the pipe so forcefully that operators ordered an emergency shutdown, fearing any spark might ignite the floating $560 million platform.

A close call, but not all that rare.

“Everybody took a deep breath and said, ‘Now, let’s get back to making a well because this rig is costing a million dollars a day,’ ” said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

The oil and gas industry spent years and tens of millions of dollars polishing the image of deep shelf exploration, making it sound as safe as flying.

But the no-worries message industry regulators, executives and ad campaigns persuasively pitched to Congress, the White House and the public contrasted sharply with work-a-day reality of deep shelf drilling.

Unlike commercial aviation or nuclear power, the offshore energy industry retains – even takes great pride in – the high-risk, high-reward ethic of its “wildcat” heritage.

“The term is ‘petroleum cowboys,’” said Richard Charter, a senior policy adviser for Defenders of Wildlife who has monitored offshore practices for 40 years.

“It really is a sort of cultural fast forward from the Texas wildcatters. The idea is you can go out and get this black gold and beat the other guys to it. There’s a kind of bravado.”

That “can-do” drive has produced impressive high-tech advances in pinpointing and extracting deposits, but it hasn’t eliminated daunting, dangerous challenges.

Industry engineers and scientists liken the complex job of boring a hole miles deep below the sea floor to “walking a tightrope.” It’s not a slogan likely to be adopted in the next American Petroleum Institute marketing campaign.

For critics, the vast dollars at stake have tempted the industry into minimizing its risks. Leasing a rig like the Deepwater Horizon can cost an oil firm $600,000 a day, but some of the first deep wells have proved immensely productive, reaping payoffs that can easily reach into the hundreds of millions.

“We are taking risks we don’t understand,” said Bea, who has reviewed numerous crew accounts and internal documents about the blowout.

Extreme pressures and temperatures squeeze safety margins and push not-always reliable gear to design limits. “Kicks,” which can blow out wells and damage rigs if crews don’t act fast to tamp them down, are common.

The deep continental shelf is a partially mapped minefield of “geohazards” such as ancient sand deposits loaded with highly pressurized gas or formations of icelike methane hydrate so volatile scientists dubbed it “burning snowballs.”

“This is one hellaciously risky business,” said Bea, who has worked more than five decades in the offshore business and been employed by both Shell Oil and BP.

The congressional panels now digging into the catastrophic April 20 blowout, which killed 11 crew members and continues spewing 5,000 barrels of crude daily in the Gulf, seem flabbergasted that an industry that had touted its high-tech prowess can’t simply turn off a busted well.

“We were told that, if the unimaginable happened, we had a fail-safe mechanism that would make certain there would be no harm,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told BP, Transocean and Halliburton executives during a subcommittee hearing this week.

The probes have already found evidence suggesting miscalculations and malfunctions – a questionable decision to replace drilling mud with seawater before sealing the well in cement, leaky hydraulic lines that may have disabled a blowout preventer that was the primary safeguard against an uncontrolled gusher – and the lack of any effective backup or cleanup plan.

In the same hearing, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., blasted the flailing efforts to cap the well, saying “drill, baby, drill” boosterism had glossed over significant risks.

“The American people expect your companies to have a technological response to this disaster on par with the Apollo project, not Project Runway,” he said.

Appearing before a House subcommittee on Wednesday, Lamar McKay, the president of BP America, cautioned against using one incident to indict the industry. He called the massive spill “unprecedented” in half a century of drilling that has peppered the Gulf with more than 42,000 wells. There have been thousands of spills, but none close to this one.

“We’ve got to learn what caused this and what to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” McKay said.

Industry executives have consistently downplayed risks its own experts have detailed for years in journals, reports and at conferences. Instead, the industry launched an aggressive and successful campaign to open more of the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean and other coastal zones — a plan approved and then suspended by the Obama administration after the massive spill.

They stressed an improving safety record, the potential rewards of tapping rich oil and gas reserves vital to the country and cutting-edge technology to reduce environmental impacts, including seismic imaging that allows undersea wildcatters to create virtual four-dimensional maps of the sediment beneath the Gulf waters.

some measures, the industry had cleaned up its act over the last two decades. In 2007, the federal Minerals Management Service reported the number of blowouts had declined to 39 between 1992 and 2006 from 87 during the previous 15-year period.

Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said the howls now to stop Gulf drilling or block further exploration are short-sighted.

“Our goal has got to be zero risk in the environment,” he said. “But you can’t just shelve this stuff. At the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to get you 25 million gallons of gas tomorrow and the next day.” And that, he said, is only how much Florida guzzles.

Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, said federal regulators have let drillers roll the dice at the public expense for too long.

“When BP is making $93 million a day in profits, they’re going to do everything possible to convince the public this activity is safe,” he said. “It’s pure hogwash.”


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