At the Congressional hearings about the Gulf oil spill today about all we heard was it’s the other guy’s fault. The one exception was the unadulterated hubris of BP.
With an estimated 4m gallons of oil polluting the gulf from the ruptured well, Lamar McKay, the chief executive of BP America, said the company had adequately anticipated the potential scale of any spill and that its clean-up operation had gone according to plan.
“We had a very specific plan,” he told the Senate. “It has actually worked.” But he acknowledged the spill could grow to nearly 19m US gallons by the time a relief well – the only sure method of stopping the leak – is drilled. BP’s defence came at the end of a testy day of hearings before two committees which saw the three oil titans connected to the disaster repeatedly accused of trying to slough off their financial and legal obligations.
But as this article from The Times-Picayune shows that warnings were ignored by industry and not enforced by the government agency that gave the warnings.
The University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea was given the forensic engineering task to determine what went wrong. His findings are disturbing. BP had been warned that methane hydrates could be a problem but BP didn’t believe there was a problem. But there was:
Powerful puffs of natural gas, called kicks, are a normal occurrence in many deep-ocean drilling operations.
But one intense kick of natural gas caused the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to be shut down because of the fear of an explosion just weeks before a similar release succeeded in destroying and sinking the platform and sent millions of gallons of oil on a collision course with Louisiana and the rest of the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
So they had some warnings but this was new territory and more mistakes were made:
Shortly before the accident, engineers argued about whether to remove heavy drilling mud that acted as a last defense against such catastrophic kicks, and the decision to replace the mud with much lighter seawater won out.
I first reported on Halliburton’s involvement here and they were indeed part of the problem.
A transcript Bea collected from a witness says the companies were confident enough they had a lucrative oil source that they decided to convert from an exploratory well to a more permanent production well, a process that requires them to apply a metal and cement casing to the well hole. They chose casing 7 inches in diameter, Bea said, and that was further sealed with cement pumped in by Halliburton. Bea said his sources reported that Halliburton was using a “new” kind of cement for the seal, something the scientist said made him say, “Uh oh.”
“The cement is infused with chemicals and nitrogen, and those chemicals and nitrogen form a frothy cement that is like shaving soap sprayed from a can,” Bea said. “It was put in there because of the concern about damage or destruction of the seals by methane hydrates.”
The crew on the Deepwater Horizon waited 20 hours for the cement job to cure before opening a key valve at the wellhead so they could place a final cement plug about 5,000 feet down the well. Bea gives Halliburton credit for writing “many excellent papers” in the past two years about the challenge of setting cement seals in the presence of large amounts of methane hydrates, which the Deepwater Horizon crew encountered in spades.
“Because of the chemicals they’ve added, they think the cement can cure rapidly,” Bea said.
But Halliburton’s awareness of cementing’s challenges did not stop the cement from failing in the Deepwater Horizon’s well. The chemicals they added for the curing process also create a lot of heat, which can thaw the methane hydrate into the gas that causes dangerous kicks, Bea said.
“I call that ‘Uh oh’ again,” he said.
BP may not survive this catastrophe not so much from the liability for this incident but because they have few conventional resources and depend on deep water exploration and production which will be halted indefinitely . BP is learning the hard way that you can outsource too much decision making and lay off too many technical people. Too bad it’s the regular people along the gulf coast who will pay the price. They won’t get enough money to make up for the loss of a way of life. The Supreme Court has decided that corporations are persons so it only makes sense they should receive the death penalty.
Cross posted at Newshoggers