Archive for March, 2010

Offshore Energy Awakening?

When you wake up after a long nap (in this case 25 years), you don’t just leap out of bed.  You first squint at the light, yawn, flex an arm, stretch your legs, and prepare to rise and actually do something.  The President’s decision to open a small slice of the Atlantic to  exploration and consider new areas in the Atlantic and Eastern Gulf of Mexico in the new 5- Year Program may seem modest, but it demonstrates that the nation is waking up to the importance of our offshore energy resources.  After 25 years of neglect, almost everyone agrees that US energy policy has been an economic and national security disaster.  More and more Americans are also recognizing that denying access to offshore resources is not in the best interest of the environment – regionally, nationally, and globally.

Some political leaders remain in dreamland as evidenced by the large blue areas in the map below.  When you have cried “wolf” about offshore drilling for your entire political career, you either believe what you have been preaching or are concerned about the political implications of changing your position.  However, demonizing offshore energy development is no longer a smart political strategy, and the views of these anti-energy stalwarts may finally be challenged, even in their own states and districts.

We operations, safety, pollution prevention, and regulatory professionals have to hold up our end.  Safety disasters or pollution spectaculars are not acceptable.  We need to examine our programs, operations, and incidents openly and honestly, and anticipate what might go wrong.  When an accident occurs, we need to learn what happened and why, and make sure it doesn’t happen again – anywhere in the world.

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BOE has returned in time for an interesting day of testimony by Mr. Duncan,  PTTEP’s well construction manager.  Tom Howe, Commission attorney, was in fine form (as usual) and took Mr. Duncan to task for the root-cause cementing and barrier decisions, and PTTEP’s seeming reluctance to accept responsibility.  When told that MMS requires 2 tested barriers, Duncan tried to equate the brief period when BOPE is removed (after cementing) to install a new wellhead section with leaving a well suspended for months without a legitimate barrier.  He continues to claim claim that PTTEP had a tested and verified barrier in the annulus despite the cement miscalculation and the absence of any log or test to verify the top of the cement.

Random thoughts while reading the testimony:

  1. Are mud line suspensions acceptable, if (as was the case at Montara) there is no means of monitoring casing pressures during the suspensions?
  2. Kudos to Advanced Well Technologies, a completion contractor that told PTTEP (prior to the blowout) they were taking undue risks to save money, and stopped working for the company.  Why hire experts, if you don’t intend to listen to them?  PTTEP seemed intent on cutting costs without assessing the risks.
  3. Where is the independent review that was prepared for PTTEP’s parent company and why hasn’t it been provided to the Commission?

Of particular interest to BOE are the philosophical questions raised by the quotes below:

Q. Howe: What about sending a request to the regulator in the middle of an afternoon on a Friday, asking for approval to substitute PCCs for a cement plug to enable you to get cracking doing that the very next day and the day after, that is, over the succeeding weekend – do you think that that signifies at all the fact that things were being done on the run, you were getting around to doing things belatedly and barely staying on top of things?
A.  Duncan: That particular event, to an extent, yes.

If you are going to administer a command-and-control regulatory regime, you better be prepared to respond to frequent requests for program deviations, and you better be able to say no.  If you are a regulator, you are not part of the operating team and you shouldn’t think of yourself as such.  Absent compelling justification, changes in fundamental safety measures should not be authorized.  More philosophically, if you have to approve everything a company does, should that company be allowed to serve as an operator?  Also, how much accountability does the regulator assume by approving these deviations?

BOE will summarize Days 8-12 during the Commission’s Easter break.

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Alexander Kielland

We owe it to all those who died or have suffered to do our best to prevent anything like the Kielland accident from happening again. Magne Ognedal, Director General, Petroleum Safety Authority Norway

Section from a brace that failed on the Alexander Kielland

Section from a brace that failed on the Alexander Kielland, Stavanger Oil Museum

Thirty years ago today,  123 workers died when the Alexander Kielland capsized in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. The Kielland was a converted semisubmersible drilling rig that was functioning as a floating quarters facility in the Ekofisk field.  The capsizing was triggered by a failure in one of the structural braces during a storm.  212 workers were aboard. More information on this tragedy can be found at the Stavanger Oil Museum site.

We join our friends and colleagues in Norway and throughout the world in remembering this tragedy. The best way to honor the dead is to make sure similar accidents don’t occur in the future, and that is our commitment.

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Because of prior commitments and allegations of unfair labor practices by our overworked staff :), we regret that we must temporarily suspend coverage of the Montara hearings.  We will resume coverage on 31 March, just in time for the Easter break that the Commission  announced today.  On well, at least we’ll have time to catch up on what we missed.

Thank you for the supportive email messages and calls.

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Q. (Mr. Howe): It’s really just the last entry that I want to ask you about, which seems to indicate that you made a comment to the effect that there were regular changes to the program during the first phase of drilling, most of which were just to save two to three minutes and cut corners. Do you see  that?

A. (Mr. Horne, Atlas driller) Yes

Q. Do you recall providing that information to anyone?

A. Yes.

Q. Does that information that is attributed to you accurately record your views?

A. Yes.

Those comments by one of the rig’s drillers are consistent with the sense one gets in reading the submissions and testimony.  Efficiency superseded caution:

  1. Don’t deviate from the “batch” approach to drilling and completing the wells even if events dictate that a change might be prudent.
  2. Don’t stop to pressure test the casing shoe even after there was evidence of channeling.
  3. Don’t weight-up the treated water prior to the suspending the well even if there were indications that its specific gravity was lower than needed to provide an overbalance.
  4. Use “barriers” that can be quickly installed and removed even if testing and safe installation/removal have not been fully considered.
  5. Only provide training that is required by the regulator – well control school.


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Quote of the Day :):

MR WHYBROW: I hear what my friend says, and I do note that it seems that I’m the only person who is required not to try to put words into the witness’s mouth.

No major developments in today’s transcript.  Comments and observations:

  1. The discussion of the 9 5/8″ casing cementing issues is a bit imbalanced in that most of the attention is on the reinjection of fluids after the influx that  followed the casing pressure test.  Very little attention has been paid to any evidence (positive or negative) of float valve closure after the cement had been pumped.  Also, there has been almost no discussion about the timing of the casing pressure test.  This test may have created or expanded the channels in the shoe.  After the influx, it was probably a mistake to inject any fluids until the cement hardened.  At that point, it would have made sense to pressure up and test the shoe.
  2. The hearings have drawn attention to the absence of well integrity, planning, and cementing elements in well control training programs.  This should be a topic for discussion by WellCap and IWCF administrators, operators, and regulators.
  3. While fault-finding and fact-finding are certainly related, today’s sessions seemed skewed toward the former.  We’ve read enough to know there were serious flaws in the management systems, and are not so concerned about individual guilt.
  4. The testimony indicated that oil-field units were converted to metric units after the drilling reports were written, and that these revisions were solely for the purpose of satisfying the “authorities.”  US offshore regulators started down this path many years ago and reversed course after considering the safety implications.  Perhaps there is a need for further international discussion about this topic.
  5. It was interesting to learn that a rig supervisor kept excerpts from drilling reports on a personal thumb drive.  I wonder how the lawyers and IT security folks like that.
  6. It seems odd that Mr. Treasure, PTT’s senior drilling representative (albeit a contractor) on the rig when some critical decisions were made, did not get to review or provide any input to the PTT submission.

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1. The Commission is well prepared and the hearings are being conducted in an effective manner.  I like the concept of establishing independent commissions of inquiry to investigate major accidents like Montara.  If this incident had happened in the US, the Coast Guard  and MMS would investigate (probably jointly).  The investigators would be technically competent and very thorough.  However, because these agencies regulate the operations they are investigating,  there would be concerns about the independence of the panel and the report.   (The President could, of course, establish an independent review panel, and this would be a distinct possibility for an event like this.  Congress would no doubt conduct high-profile hearings, but not for the purpose of better understanding the causes of the accident.)

2. The timely posting of testimony is greatly appreciated.  Most investigation panels are not so transparent and accommodating.  However, the recent submissions from witnesses and other parties (alluded to in the testimony) have not yet been posted on the website.  This information would help us better follow the hearings.

3. The root-cause cementing issues should be studied internationally.  There is room for improvement in cementing technology, practices, and standards.

4. The planning for a challenging cement job in a horizontal section of the well was surprisingly limited, and seem to have been conducted in isolated compartments.  One doesn’t get the sense that there was a coordinated plan for conducting this work; nor was there evidence of contingencies should problems arise.

5. One aspect of the  9 5/8″ cementing job that merits further discussion is the timing of the casing pressure test.  Much attention has been given to the decision to reinject fluids/cement after the influx that followed the pressure integrity test of the casing.  However, little attention has been given to the timing of that pressure test.  Had the casing pressure test not been conducted until after the cement had set, it seems possible (likely?) that fluid would not have been forced into the shoe beneath the faulty float valve and no channels would have been created in that shoe.  The subsequent reinjection of fluids, which everyone seems to agree exacerbated the problem, would not have occurred and a satisfactory barrier would have been present at the base of the casing.  Should the timing of casing pressure tests be addressed in an industry standard? Do we need a standard covering remedial actions in the event of shoe integrity issues?

6.  It has been said that offshore supervisors spend too much time reporting to various onshore offices and not enough time overseeing operations at the facility.  Does the offshore workplace suffer from too many reports and too little meaningful communication?  Is the senior offshore supervisor a facility manager or simply a conduit for information?  Is responsibility and accountability among operator and contractor personnel clearly established?

7. The operator-contractor relationship is always a sensitive topic.  A good operator should not want contractors who simply execute their directives any more than a manager should want staff who only nod in agreement.  How does a company manage their operations to ensure that they are receiving the best technical input from their contractors?

8. When your operating manual calls for cement or mechanical plugs in suspended wells, how do you substitute corrosion caps without a comprehensive review of the risks?  Did PTTEP plan to pressure test the 9 5/8″ cap (didn’t happen)?  Are such tests feasible and safe? Can you safely and effectively measure pressure under a sea floor corrosion cap?  Was the intent to remove the cap with BOPE in place (that’s not the way it was done)?  The use of pressure containing corrosion caps should be fully discussed in the aftermath of Montara?  Is a standard needed?

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Q. (Mr. Berger, Counsel for the Inquiry): Have you become aware through your experience in the industry that problems with cementing are a leading factor in the cause of blowouts?
A. (Mr. Doeg, Halliburton): No, I haven’t.

Good question and a surprising response from the Halliburton employee who was the cementing contractor when the 9 5/8″ casing was set.  Mr. Doeg has 20 years of cementing experience.  What do they discuss at training sessions and safety meetings?

Q. (Mr. Berger): Were you aware that the well you were working on on 7 March last year had entered the reservoir?
A. (Mr. Doeg): No, I wasn’t.
Q. (Mr. Berger): You’ve only become aware that it entered the reservoir subsequently; is that right?
A. (Mr. Doeg): Correct.

Stunning!   Keep in mind that this was a long 9 5/8″ string being cemented through an extended horizontal section.

Food for thought (In questioning Mr. Doeg, Mr. Berger raised the possibility of compatibility issues between the Weatherford float collar and the Halliburton plugs):

Q. When you have a float collar and a bottom plug manufactured by different companies, can issues arise about their compatibility?
A. They can, yes.
Q. What sorts of issues can arise?
A. When it comes to drilling out, they generally run non-rotating plugs to prevent that, and in this case they didn’t run non-rotating plugs; they ran an additional piece of equipment to prevent them from rotating.
Q. What about when seating the bottom plug in the float collar – can issues arise where the two parts are manufactured by different companies?
A. Normally not, but with this additional piece of equipment, possibly.


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It was a long and difficult day on the witness stand for Mr. Noel Treasure, PTTEP’s senior representative on the West Atlas during the problematic 9 5/8″ casing cementing job.  The transcript provides evidence of the stress that Mr. Treasure has  been under since the blowout.  While we are troubled by many of PTTEP’s actions at Montara, we nonetheless appreciate the difficult times that key participants in the incident are experiencing.  Although no one was injured at Montara, the blowout will still have a substantial human cost.  There are no winners.

Most of the disussion involved the key 9 5/8″ casing cementing issues including the serious miscalculation of cement volumes, the float failures and fluid influx, a remedy (reinjection of cement/fluids) that probably exacerbated the problem, the absence of a pressure test to check the floats, shoe, and casing after the cement had set,  and internal confusion and miscommunication.  Other testimony discussed the absence of a hydrostatic overbalance in the suspended well bore, the decisions leading to the use of corrosion caps as barriers in lieu of cement or mechanical plugs, and the failure to install the 13 3/8″ cap, partly because the well slot was being reserved as a “parking spot” for the BOP stack.

While the Montara blowout could and should have been prevented, the incident does draw further attention to the need for improvements in the consistency, reliability, and standardization of cementing operations.  Cementing issues are associated with well control problems, sustained casing pressure in producing wells, and post-abandonment leakage.  Best practices documents should not just address standard procedures, but also remedies, including actions  that should be followed when irregularities, such as float valve failures, are identified.

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I want to suggest to you that the primary purpose of PCCs is actually to perform an anticorrosive function, particularly in relation to MLS systems that are subsurface of the sea – Tom Howe, Counsel for the Inquiry

-Mr. Howe made it clear that these caps are primarily for corrosion prevention, particularly in the case of mud line suspensions such as the Montara wells.  Regardless of their pressure containing capabilities, PCCs are difficult to test in situ and must be removed with the BOPE in place to avoid operating without a barrier.  Other highlights of the Day 3 testimony:

-Seadrill/Atlas engaged in a bit of damage control after implying yesterday that their OIM had lead responsibility for all operations at the facility.  In a response to a question from the Seadrill attorney, Mr. Gouldin (Seadrill) rephrased his position as follows:

In various parts of my evidence yesterday, there were issues that came up about the OIM having full responsibility, but he can only undertake that responsibility if he is given clear and full information and facts from the other parties involved in the operation.  He cannot operate in isolation. When I answered that the responsibility is there – yes, the responsibility is there to be transparent to him at all times in order to allow him to fully enact his duties. That’s what I meant in my response.

-In questioning Mr. Gouldin and Mr. Millar (Seadrill/Atlas), Mr. Howe clearly established that there was fluid influx following the cementing of the 9 5/8″ casing and that the response to this influx (injecting cement and fluid volumes greater than the influx) likely exacerbated the problem.

-Mr. Howe presented evidence that the the inhibited sea water that was left in the suspended well may not have been sufficiently weighted to over-balance the formation pressure in the reservoir

-Insufficient cement volumes may have facilitated gas migration during cementing.

-Senior PTTEP personnel were aware that the 13 3/8″ corrosion cap had not been installed.  Mr. Howe suggested that the cap may not have been installed because it was in poor condition.

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