The Deepwater Horizon Two Years Later

On the two year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon accident, a lot of progress has been made to restore, as closely as humanly possible, the status of the Gulf Coast to where things stood before the accident.  A lot of effort has gone into trying to help the people affected to "get their lives back," including Tony Hayward.  BP and the lawyers of the Plaintiff's Committee are putting the finishing touches on a settlement that will pay "all legitimate claims," just as Tony Hayward promised to do.  The fishermen are out fishing, the beaches are open, the drillers are slowly getting back to drilling, and the Gulf Coast economy is ahead of where it was before the accident.

So the next question is "where do we go from here?"  The trial schedule offers us some insight into the answer.  The trial was planned to take place in three parts: the accident itself, "source control," and environmental damage and fines, in that order.  With the proper emphasis on getting lives back to normal, parts two and three have decidedly been on the back burner.  Government, as the representative of the American People, has been driving the conversation.  But now government gets its turn under the microscope.

Part One, now nearing settlement, was the accident.  Part Two, "source control," was the effort to physically clean up the mess BP and its contractors had made by "plugging the damn hole."  That effort was quickly put under the direct legal control of the federal government under the National Incident Commander, Admiral Thad Allen.  It is this fact that will drive the negotiation of any fines and other punishments in Part Three.

Until now, the government has had a pretty free hand in criticizing the offshore oil industry.  Now industry gets a chance to criticize government.  That is likely a prime reason why the course of the trial seems to be heading for a mid-course correction to defer, or skip altogether, Part Two and work out a deal on Part Three, without the need for a messy and embarrassing trial with government officials called to testify under oath.  But an accurate assessment of the source control efforts is critical to preparing for any future accident that may occur, and if this incident is any indicator, the government is woefully underprepared for another incident.

Here are some observations from those who have looked at the effort to prevent and then deal with an accident in deep water.  In describing the Minerals Management Service, the President's Oil Spill Commission wrote:

For a regulatory agency to fall so short of its essential safety mission is inexcusable[.]

What the government has done is reshuffle and rename the regulators.  The MMS became the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) before being reorganized again as Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).  To enforce the new regulations, the former director, Michael Bromwich, went on a recruiting caravan and hired a slew of new regulators from the graduating classes of several universities, including a bunch from Columbia.  Does that make you get all warm and fuzzy, thinking offshore safety will now be in the hands of a bunch of wet-behind-the ears Ivy-Leaguers from Manhattan?  Even Chris Matthews threatened to "barf" if he was told one more time about Steven Chu's Nobel Prize (does anyone miss Keith Olbermann?).  I wonder how many of you would "barf" if you heard Thad Allen talk about "an over-abundance of caution" one more time.  What you wanted was to have someone plug the damn hole, and what you got was "an over-abundance of caution."

Which brings us to some words from Rex Tillerson, Chairman of ExxonMobil, the Oil Spill Commission's chosen exemplar of good safety management.  He testified under oath, before a government panel:

The lowest risk and lowest-chance-of-success options were chosen first. At the end, what was done to contain (the well)  --  it's possible it could have been done in the beginning.

Ouch!  You mean it needn't have taken 87 days to stop the flow of oil?  While the technical aspects of the aborted "top kill" operation in May 2010 are still somewhat unclear because of government stonewalling and the White House's refusal to comply with subpoenas issued by the House Natural Resources committee, an application of common sense might help.

On July 22, 2010, one week after the flow of oil had been stopped, and more than a week before the well was killed by the "static kill" operation, the Wall Street Journal had an article which noted:

With BP Plc's blown-out Gulf of Mexico oil well now effectively capped, some experts are questioning why the company didn't attempt a similar procedure earlier in a crisis that became the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

BP scored a breakthrough last week when it installed a new, tightly fitting cap on the well that stopped oil from gushing into the ocean for the first time in nearly three months.

But a version of the plan that ultimately worked was proposed in the earliest days of the crisis by experts from a Houston firm, Wild Well Control Inc. They were among dozens of specialists BP drafted to help in the immediate aftermath of the spill, caused when a drilling rig it was leasing, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank off the Louisiana coast in late April. [SNIP]

Instead of trying to cap the leak, BP applied a series of strategies for diverting the spill that involved channeling the oil to vessels on the surface of the water. Most of these proved ineffective and they inadvertently delayed cessation of the oil flow by a month or more.

"With the benefit of hindsight, it's fairly obvious they should have intervened directly on the well and not resorted to stopgap measures," said Gene Beck, professor of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University. "It's one of the lessons we've learned from the incident."

Even Michael Moore got in on the act during an appearance on Larry King Live on July 27, 2010 (4:01 to 4:18):

Larry, this was a seven inch hole at the ocean bed, 36 inches where we saw the oil was gushing out. We're Americans. For crying out loud, I mean, have we forgotten how to do anything?

What we need is a standard of comparison for an operation that is admittedly well outside the experience of ordinary citizens.  As a veteran of the technical discussions for both, let me offer the example of the oil fires of Kuwait as that standard.  As Saddam Hussein's forces fled Kuwait in 1991, they sabotaged about 750 wells, setting most of them alight and turning the sky black.  The experts thought the "source control" efforts might take five years.  All those wells were controlled in about eight months.  There is a terrific IMAX video available on YouTube in four parts documenting the source control efforts.  Part 1 sets the stage and has awesome video of the hellish scene.  Part 2 deals with the innovations needed to extinguish the fires (a unique experience, similar to dealing with a blown out well in 5,000 feet of water).  My little contribution to the effort was the idea for the "venturi tube" shown between 5:04 and 7:10.

Part 3 is the capping operation, which ought to look very familiar to anyone who was mesmerized by the view of oil gushing from the wellhead of Macondo 252.  Watching the video, one can see what Rex Tillerson and Gene Beck were talking about.  From 5:45 to 7:56, you can see the workers clear away the damaged wreckage at the wellhead, put a new stack in place, bolt it together, and shut in the well.

Part 4 is the summary of the successful effort to "source control" the worst oilfield environmental nightmare in history.

What probably best summarizes the politicization of the source control efforts is this e-mail reported by Joel Achenbach in his book (pp 212-213), A Hole in the Bottom of the Sea, from Admiral Allen to BP's Bob Dudley.

Dear Bob...I tried all of your numbers without success. I just finished a conference call with our principals. I need to spell out the expectation for operations tomorrow very clearly to you and ask that you give this your personal attention.

The issue of monitoring for leakage and other indications of well integrity has emerged as a litmus test for BP's commitment moving the Well integrity test forward[.] ...

You will have to commit to and execute a routine surveillance of the wellhead area until advised otherwise. That surveillance will consist of a double pass by a seismic array followed by a NOAA vessel capable of acoustic testing for methane. This will be conducted twice a day as a condition of further testing, and failure to adhere to these guidelines will result in an immediate order to cease testing and move to containment production.

The exact details of the surveillance to be executed will be provided in a follow on email reflecting Secretary Chu's personal direction.

This guidance is not discretionary and should be considered as a condition of continued operations.

Please call.


This e-mail was sent during the evening of July 16, 2010, the day after the flow of oil was stopped.  And it clearly demonstrates the fanaticism of the "principals" within the Obama administration, particularly Steven Chu, to their oil collection agenda, one intended to measure the flow of oil so as to solidify their claims to the maximum fines under the Oil Pollution Act and thereby punish BP, without regard for the collateral damage on the residents of the Gulf Coast.  They had redoubled their efforts after having forgotten their aim, which was to "plug the damn hole."

Fortunately, the administration, and particularly the Coast Guard, succumbed to common sense after facing the realization that pursuing their collection strategy further would entail the public humiliation of ordering the restart of the flow of oil into the Gulf.  That set them up for the "static kill."  Probably the first independent public argument in favor of this procedure appeared in this post I wrote on the website The Oil Drum.  The static kill permanently sealed off the well and ended the endless nightmare during August 2-4, 2010.

Bruce Thompson maintains a blog, MachiasPrivateer, which has additional information on the technical aspects of the Deepwater Horizon accident and its aftermath.