Testimony Highlights 3 Major Failures That Caused Gulf Spill

By Andrew Moseman | May 12, 2010 7:18 am

gulfspill511Like the CEOs of failing car companies and steroid-suspected baseball players before them, the leaders of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton had to trek up to Capitol Hill today to stand before Congress. The three company executives played circle-of-blame in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. To sum up their statements:

BP: It was Transocean’s fault.

Transocean: It was Halliburton’s fault.

Halliburton: It was BP’s fault.

Since we may not know the whole story about the Deepwater Horizon’s explosion and sinking that resulted in the current environmental disaster in the Gulf, let’s recap the technical failures.

1. Blowout preventer

This piece of equipment, previously anonymous to most of the public, is now notorious for its failure to do its job—closing off the well automatically in response to a sudden emergency. Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America, used that fact to deflect blame:

Since Transocean owned the rig’s safety equipment, Mr. McKay said that Transocean was responsible; he added that there were “anomalous pressure test readings” before the explosion that “could have raised concerns” [The New York Times].

However, just after the accident, BP’s CEO Tony Heyward said that a blowout preventer’s failure was “unprecedented.” Not exactly, according to the AP’s investigation, which found many examples of accidents this decade in which failed blowout preventers played a role. Transocean knew about the issues, the AP says, but so did the federal government.

In the late 1990s, the industry appealed for fewer required pressure tests on these valves. The federal [Minerals Management Service] did two studies, each finding that failures were more common than the industry said. But the agency, known as MMS, then did its turnaround and required tests half as often. It estimated that the rule would yield an annual savings of up to $340,000 per rig. An industry executive praised the “flexibility” of regulators, long plagued with accusations that it has been too cozy with the industry it supervises [AP].

2. Cementing

OK, Transocean chief executive Steve Newman said, there was a blowout preventer failure, but that was not the root cause of the explosion or the leak.

“The one thing we know with certainty is that on the evening of April 20 there was a sudden, catastrophic failure of the cement, the casing, or both,” Newman said. The cementing job was done by Halliburton [The Washington Post].

In fact, Halliburton was still working on its cementing job 20 hours before the explosion.

There was already a pipe in the well for the oil to flow through, but no oil was supposed to flow yet. Cementing, one of the last steps in well construction, seals the crack between the pipe and the wall of rock. Crews pump the cement through the pipe, but it ends up on the outside of the pipe, in the space between the pipe and the rock wall. The cement also caps the bottom of the pipe [NPR].

Cementing could go bad if the material isn’t mixed to the correct consistency. If any oil and gas leaks out early, NPR reports, it can cause a pocket in the cement that doesn’t seal up. And if cement doesn’t set properly, oil and gas could escape the well and even explode.

3. Oversight, and response failures

While Transocean owned the rig and Halliburton poured the concrete, this was BP’s show. And, so, the other two companies also employed the “just following orders” defense.

Halliburton was “contractually bound,” to follow BP’s instructions, Tim Probert, president of global business lines for the Houston-based energy services company, will tell the panel.

“All offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator,” Stephen Newman, chief executive officer of Swiss drilling company Transocean said in his prepared remarks. BP, the London-based oil company, decided “where and how” its well was to be drilled, Newman said [BusinessWeek].

Whatever BP’s failures were in administering the the drilling operation and preventing an accident (and those will most likely continue to leak out, like oil into the Gulf), the company’s attempts to mitigate the spill have met with limited success. BP’s initial attempt to shut of the flow, using robot submersibles to close of the valves, has failed. After the company built its 100-ton containment dome to try to capture the flow and pump it to a tanker on the surface, icy buildup of methane and water at the depth of 5,000 feet prevented the dome from getting a seal.

The methane that caused the original explosion remains gaseous down to -161°C. The “ice” that’s forming is actually a solidified mixture of methane and water called a clathrate [Ars Technica].

Faced with dwindling options and still two months before a relief well could be completed, BP is even considering throwing garbage at the leak in the form of a “junk shot” in a last-ditch effort to stem the flow.

“They have horribly underestimated the likelihood of a spill and therefore horribly underestimated the consequences of something going wrong,” said Robert Bea, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies offshore drilling. “So what we have now is some equivalent of a fire drill with paper towels and buckets for cleanup” [Dallas Morning News].

Previous posts on the BP oil spill:
80beats: 5 Offshore Oil Hotspots Beyond the Gulf That Could Boom—Or Go Boom
80beats: Gulf Oil Spill: Do Chemical Dispersants Pose Their Own Environmental Risk?
80beats: Gulf Oil Spill: Fisheries Closed; Louisiana Wetlands Now in Jeopardy
80beats: Gulf Oil Spill Reaches U.S. Coast; New Orleans Reeks of “Pungent Fuel Smell”
80beats: Uh-Oh: Gulf Oil Spill May Be 5 Times Worse Than Previously Thought

Image: U.S. Coast Guard

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Art

    Wouldn’t it be prudent to have a plan of action for such a situation? Everyone in the industry knew of the possibility, but it seems they did very little to prevent it or find out how to correct it. It’s kind of like saying “I’ve never choked on my my own vomit, so I’ll just lie on my back because it’s easier than running to the toilet” , or “I could make a tourniquet to stop the bleeding but I have a band-aid in my pocket.”
    Why weren’t they prepared? Why don’t they drill two wells at each reserve in case one of them is breached? Someone who got rich from this disaster has a lot of splainin’ to do.

  • Transparency

    UCB Chancellor Birgeneau Loss of Credibility, Trust
    The UCB budget gap has grown to $150 million, and still the Chancellor is spending money that isn’t there on expensive outside consultants. His reasons range from the need for impartiality to requiring the “innovative thinking, expertise, and new knowledge” the consultants would bring.

    Does this mean that the faculty and management of a world-class research and teaching institution lack the knowledge, impartiality, innovation, and professionalism to come up with solutions? Have they been fudging their research for years? The consultants will glean their recommendations from interviewing faculty and the UCB management that hired them; yet solutions could be found internally if the Chancellor were doing the job HE was hired to do. Consultant fees would be far better spent on meeting the needs of students.

    There can be only one conclusion as to why creative solutions have not been forthcoming from the professionals within UCB: Chancellor Birgeneau has lost credibility and the trust of the faculty as well as of the Academic Senate leadership that represents them. Even if the faculty agrees with the consultants’ recommendations – disagreeing might put their jobs in jeopardy – the underlying problem of lost credibility and trust will remain.

  • Phil Hammond

    All of the finger pointing should begin with every single party currently providing an opinion as to who is to blame and/or lamenting the environmental impact of this oil spill asking themselves one simple question, “Am I still driving an automobile?” All of the oil that is ending up in the Gulf was destined to be converted into deadly fumes that would be pumped into the atmosphere of our environment anyway. We look at this ‘concentrated’ incident blind to the contribution we make every single day to the degradation of that which supports us, our environment. Nobody, myself included, has any right to be standing on any type of a sanctimonious soap box accusing anybody of incompetence, ignorance or negligence in relation to this incident who lives in a society that only pays lip service to environmental concerns and health as we pursue ever higher standards of living. Do any of you complaining of this incident really believe that any of the three parties involved really wanted this to happen or didn’t do everything they could to see that it didn’t? Give me a break. Those politicians and media outlets not directly effected by this spill who are all crying foul are so happy that this has happened, not because they welcomed the environmental impact but because of the political traction and guaranteed profits from increased public attention, respectively, this incident has provided them. As long as we are going to live in a society that depends upon fossil and nuclear energy to provide for our energy demands our choice is to put the environment second, period. We should at least be honest with ourselves and each other on this. The last time I checked the Pacific coastline that suffered from the Valdez incident was recovering which is much more than can be said for our atmosphere. Whenever technology is employed it is never a question of ‘if’ only ‘when’ an accident will occur and the bigger the economies the bigger the mess. The people of the gulf affected by this disaster will be compensated and unlike the companies involved who are more a victim of percentages than perpetrators of their own demise, there will be many parties who will and already have tried to take unfair advantage of this ‘insurance opportunity.’ Life happens, lets be honest about all of our contributions to this problem each time we drive up the pump, because our demand fuels, pardon the pun, the search for supply. Frankly the self-righteous few taking full advantage of this disaster to champion their own personal agenda are the ones of them all that make me the sickest.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/atlantacomputerrepair Rhonda Valintine

    I’m just upset beyond belief by this tragedy. Where can I find an realistic assessment of the accurate size of the spill? The assessments are all over the place. Thanks for your good post.

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