Deepwater Horizon: the Government on Trial?

Now that the criminal charges against BP and its drilling contractor have been settled and cannot be reopened under the principal of double jeopardy, we can expect to see an argument develop over who should be responsible when the government takes charge under the National Contingency Plan. Because the "responsible party," Exxon Mobil, proved to be unprepared for the job in the wake of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in 1989, Subtitle B, Sec. 4202 of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 provides for the federal government to assume responsibility in the person of a National Incident Commander according to the National Contingency Plan. President Obama declared the incident a Spill of National Significance, and appointed USCG Admiral Thad Allen as National Incident Commander on May 1, 2010.

He and the government soon began giving orders. One prominent example was the decision to start not just one, bit two, relief wells. Among the many available well control methods available, a relief well is clearly a valid choice and previous instances have had significant success. The first relief well operation was put under the supervision of John Wright, who had built a significant part of his well-deserved reputation fighting the oil fires of Kuwait using relief wells. His company, John Wright Company, was then already a part of Boots and Coots. Prior to the blowout, Boots and Coots had announced a plan to merge with Halliburton, BP's cement contractor. Given these financial connections, Mr. Wright's prior investment in his company become intertwined with the financial fortunes of Halliburton. None of this is meant to impugn Mr. Wright's reputation. It is meant to illustrate that there are multiple cross-interests at work here.

My intent is to subject the judgment of the federal government to the sort of intense scrutiny that the private sector parties have been given. Mr. Wright had proven himself to have a 100% success rate when he had used a relief well to subdue a wild well. Mr. Wright did eventually complete a relief well, which proved useful in the forensic examination of the Macondo 252 well; he proved that there was no oil from the well in the annulus at a total depth of about 17,200 feet. That fact alone blows a huge hole through the government's allegations against former BP VP David Rainey based on the complaints of Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA). Rep. Markey makes a big deal of an internal BP document from May 24, 2010 available here, entitled 7" x 9-5/8" Casing Annulus Flow Path. Note that it depends on there being flow through the annulus, which the relief well proved did not occur. Oops!

Thad Allen and the rest of the government bought into the idea that the relief well was the ultimate solution, likely because it seemed to be the lowest risk choice, despite being also the slowest. Even after the well had been killed by the static kill operation in early August, allowing the government to remove the Blowout Preventer (BOP) leaving the wellhead open to the sea with ZERO flow coming out, Adm. Allen insisted that the relief well would be the ultimate solution. Perhaps Admiral Allen was susceptible to confirmation bias -- he seems to have been immune to the facts.

There was a somewhat similar blowout which occurred off Australia, the Montara oil spill. Government officials are prone to describe the well control efforts there to have required five relief wells. A more accurate description would be to say it took five attempts to complete one relief well. Creating an intersection between the relief and wild wells requires incredible accuracy. It could be described as "threading a needle." Practical experience indicates that if you don't succeed on the first attempt, you pull back the thread a small amount and try again. That is exactly what is involved in taking five attempts to complete one relief well intersection. So the government's fixation on forcing BP to drill a second relief well diverted limited resources from the prime purpose of the intervention effort, to "plug the damn hole" in President Obama's own words. If BP had been allowed to do its work unimpeded, is it possible that it could have stopped the flow of oil even before the top kill operation was aborted by Steven Chu in late May? Keep in mind that oil did not reach the mainland until May 19, 2010. Should BP point the fickle finger of blame at Thad Allen and an incompetent government? Will they succeed if they do?