Deepwater Horizon: Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda
"I don't want to dwell on 'coulda, shoulda, woulda,'" he said. "There's nothing I can really point to that we shouldn't have done based on what we knew at the time." - Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy
"Do I wish the crew would have done more? Absolutely. I'm not sure that's the same emotional content as blame"..."We have not identified any management failures." - Steven Newman, CEO, Transocean
If the American people want to know why the Deepwater Horizon was such a disorganized mess, they only need to realize that these two men were in positions of authority - Chu during the government-controlled source containment efforts that dragged out for 87 days, and Newman for setting the tone for the safety management system of the drilling contractor prior to the explosion. And whatever the federal court ultimately decides in the specific civil case currently being heard in New Orleans, the public interest is to see that such an accident never happens again. And we will not preclude such accidents if we fail to determine what happened and set in place procedures to prevent a recurrence in the future.
What these men were doing was denying any personal responsibility for improving their organizations based on lessons from this accident. What the public wants to know is, what should people do if they ever find themselves in similar circumstances? The trial has not yet advanced to the source control phase, so we will save Chu's mistakes for later, other than to note that government is just as fallible as, if not more so than, the private sector.
During his testimony Tuesday, March 19, Newman tried to pass the buck to his customer, BP. As Richard Thompson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune put it:
The head of Transocean Ltd., which leased its Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and supplied its crew to BP to drill the ill-fated Macondo well, testified Tuesday that the rig's crew members "should have done more" to recognize problem signs pointing to a potential blowout during drilling and ordered the operation shut down. But he said the crew's failure was caused by following the improper recommendations of BP officials overseeing the operation.
Steven Newman, Transocean's president and CEO, was blunt in assigning blame for a botched negative pressure test that was carried out by a Transocean crew being supervised by BP. He testified that the British oil giant was responsible for preparing the key test and interpreting its results to determine whether the procedure was successful. Transocean's crew was responsible for properly lining up the test and making sure the lines and valves and gauges were correct, he said.
Newman's employees "should have done more," but the fault lies with "the improper recommendation of BP officials." You will not note any assertion of personal responsibility for any Transocean employee - only for BP employees. To illustrate the point, let me do what the parties in interest should do: advance the state of the art.
The particular "botched negative pressure test" failed to make it obvious to everyone involved, whether they worked for BP or Transocean, that they had an anomalous result that needed to be resolved. They all should have stopped work and shut in the well while they figured it out. But they put the best face on mixed results and returned to work without understanding why the unfavorable result existed.
At almost the exact time the pressure instrumentation on the drill pipe was showing an increasing pressure of 1,400 psi, indicating a flowing well, the BP "company man" was on the phone to the drilling engineer ashore to discuss the test. The engineer told him that they should not have pressure on the drill pipe and at the same time have no flow through the kill line connecting the blowout preventer on the sea floor to the open atmosphere on the rig. He suggested that maybe Transocean had not lined up the test properly. Theoretically, the drill pipe and kill line were connected down below, so they should have had the same pressure at the surface. If the kill line had pressure, it should be flowing. It was not. The crew had opened the line to the surface and monitored it for 30 minutes without detecting any flow. That was what they were trying to achieve, so when they got what they both wanted and expected, they assumed that everything was all right - everything, that is, except for that 1,400-pound-per-square-inch pressure on the drill pipe.
What the crew did not consider was that there was a plug in the kill line formed by compressed "lost circulation material." This is an additive to drilling mud used to control seepage outward from the well into the surrounding porous rock. It clogs the pores of the rock, stopping the seepage. In this regard, it functions like the coagulants in blood as they form clots. It had plugged the kill line just as tightly as a clot in a coronary artery during a heart attack, with similar deadly results.
The lesson to be learned is that one proven explanation for a circumstance where you have pressure on the drill pipe but no flow through the kill line is a plug within the kill line. So how could the crew evaluate that possibility? They could pump sea water down the kill line. If there is a plug, they either will not be able to get any flow when they should, or they will eject the plug, which will result in a sudden drop in the back pressure they are pumping against. If they then stop pumping and re-check the pressure, they will then get a reading of 1,400 psi on the kill line, too. They will have resolved the anomaly with a consistent indication of high pressure indicative of a flowing well, before the well blows out. At that point, the Transocean employees in the drill shack, with the instrumentation right before them, should act in accordance with Transocean (and broader industrywide) practice and shut in the well by closing the blowout preventer without any instructions from BP or anyone else. They have both the authority and the duty to act. They need to take personal responsibility.
They could then pump denser drilling mud down the kill line (a "kill pill") to re-establish an overbalanced condition where the pressure at the bottom of the well is greater than the pressure of oil and gas in the pay zone. At that point, they could take their time doing a "squeeze job" to repair the leaky cement. Once the leak is repaired, they could continue with their plug and abandonment operation, with no deaths, injuries, pollution, or multi-billion-dollar financial losses. And BP could come back later and reopen the well for production, and all that oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico could be produced and sent ashore to be refined into useful products, such as gasoline.
And the American people could have their own source of domestic oil and gas production, at a reasonable cost, without the mess. But somebody needs to take personal responsibility to make the needed changes. That hasn't happened yet.
UPDATE: In a priceless example of the futility of using a trial to determine the scientific facts behind an accident, "The federal judge overseeing the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill trial dismissed claims Wednesday against the Houston-based company that supplied drilling fluids to the British oil giant for its Macondo well." Given that the lost circulation material clogged the kill line and therefore led directly to the misinterpretation of the second negative pressure test, a naïve citizen might assume that the plaintiffs' attorneys would at least enter some testimony about the material.
U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier, who is trying the case without a jury, granted a motion dismissing all claims against M-I LLC, the Schlumberger subsidiary that supplied the drilling fluids to BP.
M-I had filed a motion with Barbier seeking to dismiss claims by private parties and the states of Louisiana and Alabama. The company, also known as M-I Swaco, said that no evidence was presented linking its actions to the causes of the blowout of BP's well.
Two M-I workers, mud engineers Blair Manuel and Gordon Jones, were killed in the 2010 accident.
"You're home free, Mr. Tanner," Barbier told M-I lawyer Hugh Tanner after granting his motion.
After all the discussions about the blowout preventer, Judge Barbier severed its maker, Cameron International, from the trial also.
Barbier also ruled out punitive damages against Cameron International, which manufactured the blowout preventer that was supposed to shut down the well in an emergency. Barbier said he had "not heard or seen any evidence that would support in any way a finding of gross negligence or willful misconduct" on behalf of the Houston-based company.
Any questions about the design of the blowout preventer's blind shear rams are moot. No one said the blowout preventer caused the blowout; it was supposed to throttle it so that explosive natural gas did not reach the rig. Cameron had already reached a settlement with BP for $250 million, so the issue is now settled as far as the courts are concerned.
The lawyers do not care about the facts or the future. They just follow the money.