BP Trial Phase 2 - Source Control

Remember Thad Allen telling George Stephanopoulos "George, they have been able to stop the hydrocarbons from coming up the well bore..." (0:27 of the video) during the Top Kill operation on May 28, 2010? The first week of Phase 2 of the BP trial was spent by the various actors trying to throw that hot potato to one another. What with the 16-hour news blackout and the Department of Interior drilling moratorium and the resignation of Elizabeth Birnbaum as Director of the Minerals Management service, there was a lot of news on May 27, 2010.

Here is an insider's take on those events from BP's James Dupree (See pp.664-665 of the trial transcript)

Q. Now, did you personally monitor the execution of Top Kill?

A. Yes. I was there continuously during all the operations.

Q. And how long did those operations last?

A. Three days. We pumped for three days, operated for three days.

Q. At any point in time while you were executing Top Kill,did you believe that Top Kill was working?

A. Yes. On Day 3, it actually -- well, we had pumped at over 50 barrels per minute. We shot the last of the junk that we had, made a real -- the guys offshore made a real effort to try to keep a consistent mud flow going. And as we were watching the job in the Operation Center, the weep at the kink -- the weep coming out of the kink had slowed and stopped. We reached a certain pressure threshold, but certainly we thought we had potentially killed the well. And there was a celebration in the room. A lot of people thought we had won and we were winning.

Q. Did Top Kill ultimately prove to be successful in killing the well?

A. No. Because shortly after that, after a period of time, we saw the well fight back, push the mud back out, and then kind of regained its strength and it started flowing again.

Q. Were there members of the government who were also monitoring the Top Kill operation throughout the entire time it was being executed and present with you?

A. Yes. I was with Secretary Chu the whole time. He was in the main command room where we were watching all the operations. Tom Hunter from the National Labs, a lot of the Science Team, Deputy Secretary Hayes was there. Secretary Salazar was not there. But yeah, the Science Team, mainly Secretary Chu, all day long we were monitoring it together.

This phase of the trial began with the Allied Parties (the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee (PSC), Transocean (TO), Halliburton (HAL), the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the States of Alabama and Louisiana et al.) against BP, with the PSC, TO and HAL doing most of the pleading. In opening statements they told Judge Carl Barbier that the spill should have been halted much earlier than it was. They suggested that if BP had adopted a Blowout Prevent-on-Blowout Preventer (BOP-on-BOP) strategy, the spill could have been ended by June 6th, when in the event it was not ended until July 15th with the shutting in of the well with the capping stack. They also told the judge that they thought BP would try to shift the responsibility/blame to the federal government in the persons of Admiral Allen and Energy Secretary Chu. The plaintiff's got that part right as we can see. Mr. Dupree testified "...I was with Secretary Chu the whole time."

So where does this leave our audit of the various actors in our own after action review of the source control effort? One is tempted to channel Casey Stengel, "Can't anyone here play this game?" The success or failure of the Top Kill has important ramifications for the flowing discussion, starting next week, on the total size of the spill. The oil and gas leaked out solely through an "orifice" within the partially closed BOP and the size of the hole is directly related to the maximum flow that can pass through it. The smaller the hole was the smaller the total flow.

The fact that at one point BP could shut down pumping and not have any oil or gas leak from the kink in the riser is the elephant in the room. So far, no one has a good explanation as to how that could occur. What we have here is groupthink, a failure of the trained imagination. But we also have hysteria, an out-of-control imagination. The prime example of that is Patrick Campbell, whose opinions were presented through his deposition bundle. I invite the reader to unzip the bundle and review Exhibit 3908. From the beginning, BP called upon a host of well control experts. These are the spiritual heirs of the late Red Adair. Mr. Campbell was the boss of one of them, Wild Well Control. The plaintiffs put a lot of stock in his opinions. I do not. Reading his July 28, 2010 letter to Richard Lynch of BP, we see a man in what might be characterized as a panic attack. Unsolicited, and at the last minute, he wrote to BP trying to discourage the implementation of the static kill. I was an early (and possibly the first) public advocate of the static kill on July 20, 2010. The flow of oil from the well had already been stopped on July 15, 2010 and the well integrity test was underway when Tropical Storm Bonnie caused a pause in operations (and by aerating the Gulf's surface waters, helped the aerobic bacteria enjoy their last big feast on the oil slicks). Despite Mr. Campbell's concerns, "This is not about the 'how you do it', this is about the 'Should you do it?' the static kill proceeded on August 2-4, 2010 and killed the Macondo 252 well dead. As events turned out, everything after August 4 was devoted to doing the final plug and abandon of the well and the forensics of it through retrieval of the production casing hanger and the inspection of the annulus via the intersection of the relief well with Macondo 252. They performed a necropsy, not an assassination of the well.

As an aside, in a comment to Walter Pavlo's column in Forbes, Prosecutors Gone Wild, a possible whistleblower has appeared. He is William Burch, who worked on Kurt Mix's well integrity team during the source control effort. He was an employee of wild Well Control at the time (and may still be). He wrote:

There's a lot more to this story than Bruce Thompson knows (or could know without having worked daily next to Kurt) about. I'm not at liberty to discuss but if the trial is thrown out (which I hope so) I'd be happy to have a conversation about it.

Read my article on Opening Day of Phase 2 to learn more about Mr. Burch and Kurt Mix. Mr. Mix was the first person indicted by the DoJ, in very suspect circumstances, over a text message he sent to his supervisor advising him that the flow was greater than 15,000 barrels of oil per day (BPD). The Top Kill plan stated that for a kill flow of 50 barrels per minute (BPM), 15,000 BPD of oil would be the top limit for success. But what would happen if they could deliver more than 50 BPM of mud? There is testimony they got it up to 77 BPD. And they stopped the flow of hydrocarbons into the gulf. The President's Oil Spill Commission commissioned research by LSU petroleum engineers, the Tyagi Report, which stated:

It is very likely that if the top kill had been designed to deliver more than 109 bpm of 16.4 ppg drilling fluid below the BOP stack for a sustained period, the Macondo blowout could have been stopped between May 26-28, 2010. Given that the well was successfully shut-in with the capping stack in July, and that the subsequent bullhead (static) kill was successful, certainly a higher rate top kill would have been successful at that time.

Secretary Chu, the ball is in your (And Judge Carl Barbier's) court.

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