Deepwater Horizon: Criminalizing an Accident

The most emblematic comment by an Obama Administration official during the Deepwater Horizon incident was Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who said "our job is to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum". Secretary Salazar went on to impose the offshore drilling moratorium against the National Academy of Engineering's recommendations. In addition to the politically-inspired Presidential Oil Spill Commission Chief Counsel's Report, the Congress charged the federal investigative arm, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to do an engineering review of the accident. The purpose of the CSB is to carry out non-criminal investigations in the same manner that the National Transportation Safety Board does investigations of airline accidents. The public record is clear, separating the engineering investigation from criminal investigations results in greater improvements in public safety. Over the decades of NTSB investigations airline travel has become a fabulously safe mode of travel.

So it is dismaying to see jackbooted thugs from the EPA trying to criminalize what should be an engineering investigation. The accident is question was a fire at Chevron's Richmond California refinery. The good news is that the CSB is fighting the EPA in court. According to the website Fuel Fix:

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the lead fact-finding agency looking into the fire, is evaluating what went wrong. But its role is purely investigative -- it cannot bring criminal charges. The agency has already said Chevron failed to follow its own standards when it decided not to replace a corroded pipe several months before the line sprang a leak and started the fire, but the board has not issued a final report.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which can bring charges against Chevron, is demanding that the Chemical Safety Board's lead investigator turn over notes, interview transcripts and any other documents he has gathered in his six-month probe to the recently convened grand jury. Last month, the investigator's lawyer went before U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco to fight the subpoena.

The head of the safety board says compelling a fact-finding investigator to turn over his findings to a grand jury would have a chilling effect on the agency's future probes."Our technically and scientifically oriented investigative interviews do not lend themselves to the discovery of information relevant to criminal charges," safety board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso wrote to the environmental agency's acting director last month.

"Most witnesses agree to appear voluntarily before (Chemical Safety Board) investigators, in the hope that accidents will be prevented and tragic deaths avoided," Moure-Eraso wrote. "These witnesses do not participate with the thought that there will be a direct pipeline conveying their statements ... into the hands of a grand jury for purposes of criminal enforcement or a criminal fishing expedition."

Additional evidence of the reasons why using the criminal statutes to run an engineering investigation is such a bad idea has emerged from the Deepwater Horizon civil trial in New Orleans. Allegations have been made that Halliburton used leftover cement to run quality control tests, then destroyed the reports so as to protect itself from liability.

Plaintiffs' Steering Committee lawyer Jeffrey Breit had asked Probert if Halliburton employees had conducted a series of "off-the-record tests" on the cement used by the company to seal BP's Macondo oil well following the blowout that resulted in an explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

During cross-examination, Breit said that Halliburton employees had discarded their notes from the tests, which court filings indicate occurred in late April or early May or 2010. Breit suggested there had been "a series of two, three, four, five tests that had been done and that all had irregularities with the mistake cement."

Under questioning of another Halliburton executive, the court later extracted this bit of information

The cement slurry used to seal the ill-fated BP Macondo well "had a low probability of success," a Halliburton executive who served as head of its cementing operations at the time of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster testified Tuesday in the BP spill trial.

Thomas Roth, who now serves as global operations manager for Halliburton's Boots & Coots pressure control subsidiary, testified in the third week of the sprawling civil trial that the cement slurry was not designed to standards consistent with best practices, acknowledging that "subsequent reviews show we've identified gaps in that."

So now it appears that the meme promoted by the thugs and their crony capitalist allies from Halliburton -- that BP's use of an insufficient number of centralizers caused the accident -- is not definitive. Below we have Fig. 4.1.1 from the Chief Counsel's Report:

Simplifying for the lay reader, you can see two potential flow paths. The one on the left is the "annular" flow path, where the oil and gas migrate out of the pay zone and flow upward in the doughnut shaped space between the "production casing" and the meal casing of the well. The one on the right shows the "shoe track" flow path [and variants]. Looking at the drawing you can see near the bottom a transition zone between magenta and gray with some equipment across the flow path. That equipment consists of the "wiper plugs" and "float collar". The suspect cement was pumped into the shoe track below the float collar and then upward around the production casing to the level of the pay zone is shown in gray and above. [The variants consist of hypotheses that oil and gas flowed through the wall of the production casing above the top of the cement, something that can be refuted by the positive pressure test conducted before the negative pressure tests that resulted in the blowout. That test demonstrated that there was no flow path through the wall of the production casing from the wiper plugs on up or else it would have failed that test. So we can ignore these alternative variant upward flow paths from the pay zone, through the allegedly "channeled" lead cement shown in gray and then through the magenta colored annular space above the top of the cement].

The yet unstated fact is that when the relief well finally intersected the Macondo well, at a total depth of about 17,200 feet, Halliburton's relief well expert, John Wright, found no oil or gas in that annular space. The figure shows the location of the intersection in magenta, where the annulus is in direct contact with the wall of the drilled hole, shown in black, (look for the lowest arrows shown on the drawing within the annulus to locate this point). If there was no oil and gas found there, then there could not have been 87 days of flow through that part of the annulus.

The net result is that we can identify the flow path as being U-shaped, from the pay zone down the annulus, "U-tubing" back up through the shoe track and past the float collar into the production casing. Right past where Halliburton's cement was supposed to be providing a solid pressure barrier and where BP had installed the six centralizers called for by Halliburton's OptiCem computer program. You can find greater detail here and here on my blog.

One can see why Halliburton would prefer to deny that the flow was up the shoe track and instead try to sell the idea it was up through the annulus past the missing centralizers, but the facts do not support that claim. Halliburton does have a reputation for paying huge sums of money to politicians for favorable treatment. Could it be that the Obama thugs were paid off to protect Halliburton? Does the corrupt mixing of politics and campaign donations create a greater risk to public safety than letting the industry proceed under penalties available under existing civil tort law? Does the Obama Administration resemble a criminal protection racket using the criminal courts to keep its crony capitalist friends in line while they pump huge sums of cash into the Democrats' campaign coffers? Does Barack Obama try to shake down oil companies for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks, "Because that is where the money is"?

Stay tuned!

The most emblematic comment by an Obama Administration official during the Deepwater Horizon incident was Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who said "our job is to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum". Secretary Salazar went on to impose the offshore drilling moratorium against the National Academy of Engineering's recommendations. In addition to the politically-inspired Presidential Oil Spill Commission Chief Counsel's Report, the Congress charged the federal investigative arm, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to do an engineering review of the accident. The purpose of the CSB is to carry out non-criminal investigations in the same manner that the National Transportation Safety Board does investigations of airline accidents. The public record is clear, separating the engineering investigation from criminal investigations results in greater improvements in public safety. Over the decades of NTSB investigations airline travel has become a fabulously safe mode of travel.

So it is dismaying to see jackbooted thugs from the EPA trying to criminalize what should be an engineering investigation. The accident is question was a fire at Chevron's Richmond California refinery. The good news is that the CSB is fighting the EPA in court. According to the website Fuel Fix:

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the lead fact-finding agency looking into the fire, is evaluating what went wrong. But its role is purely investigative -- it cannot bring criminal charges. The agency has already said Chevron failed to follow its own standards when it decided not to replace a corroded pipe several months before the line sprang a leak and started the fire, but the board has not issued a final report.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which can bring charges against Chevron, is demanding that the Chemical Safety Board's lead investigator turn over notes, interview transcripts and any other documents he has gathered in his six-month probe to the recently convened grand jury. Last month, the investigator's lawyer went before U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco to fight the subpoena.

The head of the safety board says compelling a fact-finding investigator to turn over his findings to a grand jury would have a chilling effect on the agency's future probes."Our technically and scientifically oriented investigative interviews do not lend themselves to the discovery of information relevant to criminal charges," safety board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso wrote to the environmental agency's acting director last month.

"Most witnesses agree to appear voluntarily before (Chemical Safety Board) investigators, in the hope that accidents will be prevented and tragic deaths avoided," Moure-Eraso wrote. "These witnesses do not participate with the thought that there will be a direct pipeline conveying their statements ... into the hands of a grand jury for purposes of criminal enforcement or a criminal fishing expedition."

Additional evidence of the reasons why using the criminal statutes to run an engineering investigation is such a bad idea has emerged from the Deepwater Horizon civil trial in New Orleans. Allegations have been made that Halliburton used leftover cement to run quality control tests, then destroyed the reports so as to protect itself from liability.

Plaintiffs' Steering Committee lawyer Jeffrey Breit had asked Probert if Halliburton employees had conducted a series of "off-the-record tests" on the cement used by the company to seal BP's Macondo oil well following the blowout that resulted in an explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that killed 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

During cross-examination, Breit said that Halliburton employees had discarded their notes from the tests, which court filings indicate occurred in late April or early May or 2010. Breit suggested there had been "a series of two, three, four, five tests that had been done and that all had irregularities with the mistake cement."

Under questioning of another Halliburton executive, the court later extracted this bit of information

The cement slurry used to seal the ill-fated BP Macondo well "had a low probability of success," a Halliburton executive who served as head of its cementing operations at the time of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster testified Tuesday in the BP spill trial.

Thomas Roth, who now serves as global operations manager for Halliburton's Boots & Coots pressure control subsidiary, testified in the third week of the sprawling civil trial that the cement slurry was not designed to standards consistent with best practices, acknowledging that "subsequent reviews show we've identified gaps in that."

So now it appears that the meme promoted by the thugs and their crony capitalist allies from Halliburton -- that BP's use of an insufficient number of centralizers caused the accident -- is not definitive. Below we have Fig. 4.1.1 from the Chief Counsel's Report:

Simplifying for the lay reader, you can see two potential flow paths. The one on the left is the "annular" flow path, where the oil and gas migrate out of the pay zone and flow upward in the doughnut shaped space between the "production casing" and the meal casing of the well. The one on the right shows the "shoe track" flow path [and variants]. Looking at the drawing you can see near the bottom a transition zone between magenta and gray with some equipment across the flow path. That equipment consists of the "wiper plugs" and "float collar". The suspect cement was pumped into the shoe track below the float collar and then upward around the production casing to the level of the pay zone is shown in gray and above. [The variants consist of hypotheses that oil and gas flowed through the wall of the production casing above the top of the cement, something that can be refuted by the positive pressure test conducted before the negative pressure tests that resulted in the blowout. That test demonstrated that there was no flow path through the wall of the production casing from the wiper plugs on up or else it would have failed that test. So we can ignore these alternative variant upward flow paths from the pay zone, through the allegedly "channeled" lead cement shown in gray and then through the magenta colored annular space above the top of the cement].

The yet unstated fact is that when the relief well finally intersected the Macondo well, at a total depth of about 17,200 feet, Halliburton's relief well expert, John Wright, found no oil or gas in that annular space. The figure shows the location of the intersection in magenta, where the annulus is in direct contact with the wall of the drilled hole, shown in black, (look for the lowest arrows shown on the drawing within the annulus to locate this point). If there was no oil and gas found there, then there could not have been 87 days of flow through that part of the annulus.

The net result is that we can identify the flow path as being U-shaped, from the pay zone down the annulus, "U-tubing" back up through the shoe track and past the float collar into the production casing. Right past where Halliburton's cement was supposed to be providing a solid pressure barrier and where BP had installed the six centralizers called for by Halliburton's OptiCem computer program. You can find greater detail here and here on my blog.

One can see why Halliburton would prefer to deny that the flow was up the shoe track and instead try to sell the idea it was up through the annulus past the missing centralizers, but the facts do not support that claim. Halliburton does have a reputation for paying huge sums of money to politicians for favorable treatment. Could it be that the Obama thugs were paid off to protect Halliburton? Does the corrupt mixing of politics and campaign donations create a greater risk to public safety than letting the industry proceed under penalties available under existing civil tort law? Does the Obama Administration resemble a criminal protection racket using the criminal courts to keep its crony capitalist friends in line while they pump huge sums of cash into the Democrats' campaign coffers? Does Barack Obama try to shake down oil companies for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks, "Because that is where the money is"?

Stay tuned!