Posts Tagged ‘Deepwater Horizon’

Sharing this touching tribute to the 11 men who died on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010. These American heroes gave their lives exploring for energy to power our economy. The video is introduced by singer Trace Atkins, a former Gulf of Mexico rig worker. Please take a moment to watch.

Other Macondo posts.

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[Disclosure: I assisted the legal team that defended Bob Kaluza. That said, I completely disagreed with the charges against him and Don Vidrine before my involvement in the case.]

Bob Kaluza (L) and Don Vidrine

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of tough guy talk in Washington DC after the blowout:

“Our job is basically to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum” 

Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior

Weeks after the explosion, President Obama told NBC’s Matt Lauer he was trying to figure out “whose ass to kick.”

Texas Monthly

It was therefore predictable that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would choose to prosecute BP employees individually. There were BP managers who would have been good candidates, but instead DOJ chose to criminally prosecute the working stiffs – the two BP well site leaders on the rig. They were the lowest ranking BP employees associated with the incident. This was apparently acceptable to BP, since their plea agreement blamed Kaluza and Vidrine’s for their role in overseeing the negative pressure test (#blametheworker). Never mind that:

  • BP management was responsible for the well planning and shortcuts that were the root causes of the blowout (see the previous posts in this Macondo series).
  • the extent to which the negative pressure test was misconducted and misinterpreted was and remains a topic of dispute.
  • there were no regulations or standards requiring this test or explaining how it should be conducted, and BP’s internal guidance was woefully inadequate.
  • Bob Kaluza was a temporary replacement for the regular well site leader, had worked primarily onshore, and had never conducted or witnessed a negative pressure test.
  • Kaluza and Vidrine were themselves victims and were fortunate to have survived the incident.

Despite all of this, DOJ still chose to prosecute the two well site leaders. However, the weaknesses in the DOJ case became more obvious over time, and DOJ dropped all but a misdemeanor water pollution charge. Vidrine, who had health issues that were exacerbated by the case, accepted a plea deal. Kaluza was confident of his innocence and chose to make his case in court. His defense team was very strong, and the trial was essentially a walkover. After less than 2 hours of deliberation, the jury fully acquitted Bob Kaluza (2/25/2016). Sadly, Don Vidrine passed away the following year.

LInked is a very good Texas Monthly article about the case.

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While the previously discussed planning, cementing, and well suspension issues allowed the well to flow, there were many other equipment, operational, and management deficiencies that elevated the incident to a disaster. Below are those that bother me the most:

  • Blowout Preventers
    • The Deepwater Horizon BOP stack had a single blind shear ram. Regardless of what the regulations allowed, you don’t drill a complex well like this without redundant shearing capability (and at the time of the blowout most deepwater drillers were using rigs with dual shear rams). All well control emergencies requiring the emergency disconnect sequence, deadman, and autoshear functions are dependent on effective shearing capability. You can have redundancy in every other BOP element, but without dual shear rams, you don’t have a redundant BOP system. Further, for full redundancy both shear rams should be capable of sealing the well bore after shearing. In that regard, the present regulations and the applicable standard (API S 53) require only one shear ram capable of sealing. They are thus deficient and should be updated.
    • The DWH BOP system did not have full bore shearing capability (available at the time) which may have sheared the deflected drill pipe.
    • The DWH BOP system was not properly maintained and recertified as required by regulation.
    • Transocean’s “condition based maintenance” was a euphenism for “fix it when it fails.” Perhaps worse, BP authorized the continuation of operations knowing that an annular preventer was leaking.
  • The initial flow from the well was directed to the mud-gas separator instead of being routed overboard via the diverter. Routing the flow to the diverter would have provided additional time for the crew to safely evacuate.
  • Gas detectors
    • Not all gas detectors were fully operational. As justification, Transocean’s report expressed concerns about alarm fatigue, a weak excuse. Alarm issues can be effectively managed without disabling the devices.
    • The gas detectors did not automatically shutdown the generators, the source of the initial explosion. This is somewhat understandable on a dynamically positioned rig that is dependent on power to maintain position. However, someone should have shut down the generators as soon as gas was detected.
  • Engine overspeed devices didn’t work, and apparently weren’t tested regularly. Had they worked, the engine room explosion may have been prevented.
  • The crew had time to activate the Emergency Disconnect Sequence, but did not.
    • Deficient training
    • Uncertain chain of command
    • Fear of repercussions?

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US Offshore Program:

Prior to April 20, 2010, 25,000 wells had been drilled in US Federal waters over the previous 25 years without a single well control fatality, an offshore safety record that was unprecedented in the U.S. and internationally. Well control was the keystone of every operator and drilling contractor’s safety program and the Minerals Management Service regulatory program, which included a pioneering well control research facility at LSU, standards, prescriptive rules, and comprehensive training requirements.

The future of the offshore program was bright. The Obama administration had included an Atlantic OCS lease sale in the 5-year OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2010-2015. This would have been the first Atlantic sale since 1983. I participated in a hearing held by a Florida Senate committee that was seriously considering oil and gas leasing in Florida State waters. Even in California, there was some support, led by a group known as Stop Oil Seeps, for new offshore exploration and production .

Everything changed on April 20, 2010, when BP’s Macondo well blew out. Eleven workers lost their lives, the most in a single US offshore incident since 1968, when 11 died in a fire and explosion at West Delta Block 23. In the history of the US offshore program, only a 1964 gas blowout (Eugene Island Block 273) caused more fatalities (22). (There were also tragic helicopter crashes in 1977 and 1984 at South Marsh Island Block 128 and Eugene Island Block 190 that killed 17 and 14 offshore workers respectively.) The Macondo blowout was more than a safety disaster, it was also a pollution spectacular that dominated the news for the next 3 months.

Pre-Macondo BP:

As is often the case with large organizations, the BP story is complex. BP said all the right things about safety and environmental protection, and seemed to mean them and practice them. They had comprehensive safety and risk management programs. They were at the vanguard in promoting personal safety among employees including the now common (and sometimes a bit contrived) practice of opening meetings with safety messages. All of that was no doubt consistent with their “beyond petroleum” rebranding (2002). However, the corporate image was badly tarnished by the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers and a 5000 barrel pipeline spill on the North Slope of Alaska in 2006.

BP’s deepwater Gulf of Mexico exploration programs had been very successful. BP produced more oil in the 2 years prior to the blowout than any other US offshore operator – 117 million barrels in 2008 and 188 million barrels in 2009. Their 2009 oil production total is still the highest in history for any US offshore operator (something I hadn’t realized until I checked the figures for this post.)

The compliance record for BP’s production facilities in 2008 and 2009 was “beyond” excellent. While BSEE does not publish the details needed to distinguish INCs by facility and operation, my recollection is that inspection of the thousands of components on their production platforms did not result in even a single incident of non-compliance (INC) in 2008, and there were no production safety or pollution incidents. BP was named a finalist for the MMS SAFE Award to be presented at OTC in May, 2009. However, pointing further to their corporate inconsistencies, BP’s drilling compliance record was not as good, and qualitative feedback from MMS inspection personnel indicated some safety and compliance issues. This input may have been a hint at the drilling program management issues that surfaced after the blowout. In light of these concerns about BP’s drilling operations, Devon Energy was presented the National SAFE Award in the “High Activity Operator” category.

I retired from MMS on 1/2/2010 and was thus not involved in the deliberations for the 2009 SAFE Awards. I understand that BP was the leading candidate to be presented the award in May 2010. However, the way the program worked was that finalists in each category were named in advance, but the winners were not announced until the awards luncheon. The reasons for this approach were to build suspense and avoid a situation where the winning company was involved in a significant incident prior to the presentation. This had never been an issue in the 30 year history of this awards program.

In light of the tragic events of April 20, the 2010 SAFE awards luncheon was cancelled, as it most definitely should have been. That said, I remain a strong believer in recognizing safety achievement. The MMS SAFE Awards were the only offshore safety awards determined by the safety regulator based on incident and compliance data and input from inspectors, the people who are most familiar with each company’s operations and the effectiveness of their safety programs. The awards program drew attention to best practices, information sharing, and safety leadership. The recipients and all staff that contributed to the company’s success were rightfully proud of their achievement. You could not nominate yourself or be nominated for SAFE awards; only the companies with the best safety and compliance records were considered. Past performance is never a guarantee of future success, but MMS SAFE Award winners earned the recognition they received and continued to be top performers.

Tomorrow: Macondo revisited, Part 3: The delayed cementing standard

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This week I’ll be posting background information, new details, and personal opinions about the April 20, 2010 Macondo tragedy. As a prelude, I wanted to share this touching tribute to the 11 men who died on the Deepwater Horizon. These American heroes gave their lives exploring for energy to power our economy. The video is introduced by singer Trace Atkins, a former Gulf of Mexico rig worker.

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Phil Rae piece in Fuel Fix

  1. The well clearly had losses through the shoe during the initial displacement of the heavy spacer with seawater, immediately prior to the negative test.
  2. Allowing for, and accepting, losses of ~80 bbls during spacer displacement, explains ALL pressure and flow anomalies without the need to create or invoke undocumented and unsubstantiated valve closures or manipulations that contradict witness testimony of events. It also eliminates the need to adopt unrealistically-low pump efficiencies for the rig pumps, hypothetical washed-out tubing and ridiculously high viscosities for the drilling mud, in an effort to fit questionable computer models.
  3. Despite extensive examination by investigators and the publication of several reports, the fact that the well experienced losses, making it even more severely underbalanced than was planned, has been given little credence or has received little or no attention, despite several clear indications that this was the case. While this statement regarding losses may be self-evident, its significance on the outcome at Macondo merits closer examination since it explains many previous, apparently-contradictory aspects of the disaster.
  4. Under-displacement of heavyweight spacer, as a result of losses during displacement, caused U-tubing and partial evacuation of the kill line, the lower end of which was later refilled with heavyweight spacer, driven by pressure and flow from the formation. The vacuum, initially, and subsequent invasion of heavy fluid rendered the kill line useless for monitoring the well since the line was effectively blind to pressure changes in the well.
  5. While initial flow into the well was through the shoe, pressure above the casing hanger seal during the negative test was reduced to levels that could have allowed the casing to lift, compromising the seal and possibly also allowing flow from the external annulus.
  6. The well encountered further losses during the second displacement (to displace the riser), after completion of the negative test. These losses, which were perhaps as much as 200 bbls, effectively replaced heavy mud with sea water in the casing below the drill pipe. This further underbalanced the well to the point that it was being kept under control only by pumping friction pressure. As the pump rate was reduced prior to shut down for the sheen test, effectively reducing system backpressure, the now severely underbalanced well began to flow.

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oil-eating bacteria

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientists have published important new findings on the rapid bacterial degradation of the Macondo spill.

They found that bacterial microbes inside the slick degraded the oil at a rate five times faster than microbes outside the slick—accounting in large part for the disappearance of the slick some three weeks after Deepwater Horizon’s Macondo well was shut off.


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Dauphin Island tarballs, May 2011

Cheryl’s update after reviewing the latest reports:

  • There is a USCG unified command specific to BP spill residue after storms.
  • The tarballs are not considered toxic, just an unattractive nuisance.
  • Tarball cleanup on Dauphin Island was halted on May 1 to protect nesting birds.
  • BP estimates a total Macondo spill volume of about 4 million bbl as opposed to the government estimate of 4.9 million bbl.
  • BP estimates that 850,000 barrels were captured, burned or skimmed off the water.
  • 1,260 people remain employed in spill cleanup as of [July 14, 2011], down from a peak of 48,200 a year ago

Articles of interest:


WALA New Orleans

Bloomberg Business Week 

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Very interesting findings for those interested in the fate of spilled oil:

The deep sea entrainment of water-soluble hydrocarbons has far-reaching implications for deep water oil spills. Our results demonstrate that most of the C1-C3 hydrocarbons and a significant fraction of water-soluble aromatic compounds were retained in the deep water column, whereas relatively insoluble petroleum components were predominantly transported to the sea surface or deposited on the seafloor, although the relative proportions are not known.

The resulting apportionments of hydrocarbon transfers to the water column and atmosphere are therefore very different for a deep water oil spill versus a sea-surface oil spill. During seasurface oil spills, highly water-soluble components such as BTEX, C3-benzenes, and naphthalene quickly volatilize and are rapidly lost to the atmosphere within hours to days, thereby limiting the extent of aqueous dissolution into the water column. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, however, gas and oil experienced a significant residence time in the water column with no opportunity for the release of volatile species to the atmosphere. Hence, water-soluble petroleum compounds dissolved into the water column to a much greater extent than is typically observed for surface spills.

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Animation of Transocean’s BOP analysis

Transocean’s BOP Defense:

Forensic evidence from independent post-incident testing by Det Norske Veritas (DNV) and evaluation by the Transocean investigation team confirm that the Deepwater Horizon BOP was properly maintained and did operate as designed. However, it was overcome by conditions created by the extreme dynamic flow, the force of which pushed the drill pipe upward, washed or eroded the drill pipe and other rubber and metal elements, and forced the drill pipe to bow within the BOP. This prevented the BOP from completely shearing the drill pipe and sealing the well.

In other words, Transocean contends that properly maintained BOPE was not up to the task of shutting-in and securing a high-rate well. If true, this finding has significant implications for the offshore industry.  I’m looking forward to reading the government’s findings on the BOP failure when the Joint Investigation Team report is issued next month.


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