BP’s Deadly Path To Failure — Act II
It is said the first news accounts are the rough drafts of history. It is also promoted that history is a guide to prevent making the same mistake over and over again.
If that’s the case, we learned nothing, saw nothing and did nothing to prevent the largest oil spill in our nation’s history that is fast approaching the world’s greatest accidental man-made environmental and economic disaster.
We’re talking, of course, about BP the oil giant whose negligence killed 15 factory workers at a Texas oil refinery, leaked millions of barrels of oil on the frozen tundra in Alaska from an un-inspected corrosive pipeline, and killed 11 crew on an exploratory drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico April 20. That resultant leak remains spewing 12,000 to 19,000 bpd with no end in sight.
With the New York Times remaining one of a few newspapers affording an investigative team of reporters, we look to them and those like them to bury their noses in the fine print of internal documents that public hearings by congressional oversight committees and U.S. Coast Guard inquiries don’t have the time to bare all.
Those internal documents are 50,000 pages of company e-mail messages, inspection reports, engineering studies and other company records as well as records from the Interior Department’s Mineral Management Services agency, the government regulator, obtained from congressional committees through the Freedom of Information Act.
The conclusion: (1) BP knew in advance of “well problems” leading up to the explosion, and (2) if not committing perjury were stepping close to falsehoods BP executives testified under oath at the public hearings held so far.
According to the Times:
As far back as June 22, 2009, BP was struggling with problems concerning the well casing and the blowout preventer. Tests showed the metal casing BP engineers wanted to use might collapse under the more than 10,000 of pounds-per-square-inch pressure and at the end only 6,000-pound pressure tests were applied.
“This would certainly be a worst-case scenario,” Mark E. Hafle, a senior drilling engineer at BP, warned in an internal report. “However, I have seen it happen so know it can occur.” The company went ahead with the casing, but only after getting special permission from BP colleagues because it violated the company’s safety policies and design standards. The internal reports do not explain why the company allowed for an exception.
Yet, last Friday Hafle testified before a Coast Guard panel “Nobody believed there was going to be a safety issue… All the risks had been addressed, all the concerns had been addressed, and we had a model that suggested if executed properly we would have a successful job.”
The execution occurred, all right, but not what BP engineers had in mind.
Weeks before the explosion, BP concluded the casing plan for the well was “unlikely to be a successful cement job,” in reference to sealing the cement casing to prevent gases from escaping up the well and onto the platform. The document also said the plan for casing the well is “unable to fulfill M.M.S. regulations.”
After further tests, a second document stated “It is possible to obtain a successful cement job” and “It is possible to fulfill M.M.S. regulations.”
The documents show that in March, after problems on the rig that included drilling mud falling into the formation, sudden gas releases known as “kicks” and a pipe falling into the well, BP officials informed federal regulators that they were struggling with a loss of “well control.”
On at least three occasions, BP records indicate, the blowout preventer was leaking fluid, which the manufacturer of the device has said limits its ability to operate properly.
“The most important thing at a time like this is to stop everything and get the operation under control,” said Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, Austin, offering his assessment about the documents.
The documents offer a glimpse of the role between BP and government regulators. Here’s one example:
After informing regulators of their struggles, company officials asked for permission to delay their federally mandated test of the blowout preventer, which is supposed to occur every two weeks, until the problems were resolved, BP documents say.
At first, the minerals agency declined.
“Sorry, we cannot grant a departure on the B.O.P. test further than when you get the well under control,” wrote Frank Patton, a minerals agency official. But BP officials pressed harder, citing “major concerns” about doing the test the next day. And by 10:58 p.m., David Trocquet, another M.M.S. official, acquiesced.
“After further consideration,” Trocquet wrote, “an extension is approved to delay the B.O.P. test until the lower cement plug is set.”
Bob Sherrill, an expert on blowout preventers and the owner of Blackwater Subsea, an engineering consulting firm, said the conditions on the rig in February and March and the language used by the operator referring to a loss of well control “sounds like they were facing a blowout scenario.”
Sherrill said federal regulators made the right call in delaying the blowout test, because doing a test before the well is stable risks gas kicks. But once the well was stable, he added, it would have made more sense for regulators to investigate the problems further.
The other example:
One of the final indications of such problems was an April 15 request for a permit to revise its plan to deal with a blockage, according to federal documents obtained from Congress by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group.
In the documents, company officials apologized to federal regulators for not having mentioned the type of casing they were using earlier, adding that they had “inadvertently” failed to include it. In the permit request, they did not disclose BP’s own internal concerns about the design of the casing.
Less than 10 minutes after the request was submitted, federal regulators approved the permit.
Under the entire permit process, after all the scrutiny that was rendered, there was not a trace of evidence BP filed or the regulators asked, for a contingency plan in case the drilling pipe sprung a leak. It occurred to neither an explosion would ever occur and the engineering means to plug it have only been addressed in theory and not at a depth of 5,000 feet.
Act III in this drama is next.
Cross posted on
Posted comments are welcome and automatically go to my email address at [email protected] Remmers’ varied career spans 26 years in the newspaper business. Read a more thorough resume on The Remmers Report.