Brief Historical and Legal Background of the BP Deepwater Horizon Blowout

Posted: June 7th, 2010 by: h2

It’s a shame this type of information gets buried in endless comment threads over at, so for a while I’m going to salvage the best stuff and put it up here. (Fixed and added a few links).

avonaltendorf on June 6, 2010 – 3:49pm Permalink | Subthread | Parent | Parent subthread | Comments top

Preponderance of evidence that BP Houston gave orders to company men Vidrine and Kaluza, neither of whom appeared at Coast Guard hearings in Kenner. Vidrine claimed illness, Kaluza pleaded 5th Amendment. BP executives repeatedly denied knowing what happened at Macondo and blamed Transocean for the blowout. Coast Guard hearings established that BP company men were in control of drilling program, ignored mud returns, ordered displacement to seawater.

“Mark Hafle, the BP drilling engineer who wrote plans for well casings and cement seals on the Deepwater Horizon’s well, testified that the well had lost thousands of barrels of mud at the bottom. But he said models run onshore showed alterations to the cement program would resolve the issues, and when asked if a cement failure allowed the well to flow gas and oil, he wouldn’t capitulate. Hafle said he made several changes to casing designs in the last few days before the well blew, including the addition of the two casing liners that weren’t part of the original well design because of problems where the earthen sides of the well were ballooning. He also worked with Halliburton engineers to design a plan for sealing the well casings with cement.” [ – Hearings: Only deepest well casing used new kind of cement]

I monitored the hearings, listened to every word of testimony and watched him smirk. Halfe prevaricated, refused to identify the authenticity of the Macondo Final Drilling Plan with his signature on it, which was produced by Transocean. Hafle’s attorney objected to introduction of BP proprietary information.

“BP’s claims of limited involvement in the actual drilling of the Macondo Prospect well are so disingenuous and incongruent with the facts that they would be laughable if they were not so cynically absurd. All aspects of Macondo well design and drilling program execution came under BP’s direct control, supervision, approval and authority, and for BP to suggest that they simply were not significantly involved in the conduct of well operations on 20 April is to turn the world upside down and expect no one to notice.” [Michael Williams, Wall Street Journal (note: for the full text of this comment, see below]

“The New York Times reported on May 30 that internal BP documents showed ‘serious problems and safety concerns’ with the rig prior to the explosion that triggered the spill. Marzulla said the government also may investigate whether BP or other companies lied to the government by submitting false reports to regulatory agencies.” [Bloomberg Businessweek]

“More than a half-dozen workers who were on the rig at the time of the explosion told the lawyers that the rig operator seemed to be rushing to finish and detach from the well — a possible factor that could have contributed to the explosion…” [New York Times]

“In 2002, the rig [Deepwater Horizon] was upgraded with ‘e-drill,’ a drill monitoring system whereby technicians based in Houston, Texas, received real-time drilling data from the rig and transmitted maintenance and troubleshooting information.” Monitoring system reduces rig downtime

“BP will display its Field of the Future™ programme, which is at the center of the company’s goal to increase production by 100,000 barrels a day by 2017, at SPE Intelligent Energy 2010 in Holland starting today (23-25 March, Jaarbeurs, Utrecht). Routinely supporting more than 80 percent of its top producing wells, the BP Field of the Future programme seeks to improve decision-making through real time data capabilities in production and reservoir management. Since it was initiated five years ago, the programme, which is now a routine part of how BP builds projects and operates fields across its portfolio…” BP demonstrates its field of the future™ program at SPE Intelligent Energy 2010

“Was the rig wired at the time of the blowout, fire and explosion? Were the data transmitted? Where are the data, who has access to them? Tuesday’s Senate hearings produced few salient data points among all the finger-pointing and recriminations. Beyond the statements made in front of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it’s time to drill down and take a close look, not at the testimony of the executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton who did their best to spin liability, but at the hard data, information flow and decisions made…” [Roll Call, May 14]

“Do not hold your breath on ever seeing that. This well was exploratory and everything was locked down on one specific floor at bp’s office in HTX. If you ever see the data it would be after many trials and if someone stole it. I doubt seriously this data will EVER be public.” Deepwater Horizon – Transocean Oil Rig Fire

And here’s that interesting comment (on wsf blogs) from Michael Williams (original WSJ posting: Transocean Seeks Limit on Liability):

* Michael Williams wrote:

The proximate cause of this incident is almost certainly a failed primary cementation that resulted in direct and fairly unrestricted hydraulic communication of reservoir fluids (gas and oil) to the uncemented production casing annulus. Zonal isolation is the principal function of a primary cementation, and BP deliberately chose not to evaluate the integrity of that isolation (possibly against the advice of cementing contractor Halliburton), by means of widely-used wireline acoustic logging methods, before commencing to prepare the Macondo well for temporary plugging and abandonment.

Even if BP drilling management believed that this operation, and any remedial ‘squeeze’ cementing that indications of poor isolation might require, could be more economically left to the later re-entry of the well for completion, it is difficult to understand how confirmation of zonal isolation could not have been seen as essential and safety-critical — vis-à-vis ruling out the possibility of reservoir communication to the production casing backside at the wellhead — before displacing the riser to seawater, an operation that brought the differential pressure between an overpressured gas-charged production casing annulus and production casing bore, and across the production casing seal assembly, to a maximum, precipitating the catastrophic breach in mechanical well integrity — either in the wellhead seal assembly, or by gross failure or leak-to-failure of a near-wellhead production casing connection — that gave rise to loss of well control.

BP’s claims of limited involvement in the actual drilling of the Macondo Prospect well are so disingenuous and incongruent with the facts that they would be laughable if they were not so cynically absurd. All aspects of Macondo well design and drilling program execution came under BP’s direct control, supervision, approval and authority, and for BP to suggest that they simply were not significantly involved in the conduct of day-to-day well operations, including those on 20 April, is to turn the world upside down and expect no one to notice.

When the incident investigation is complete, it may well be found that near-wellhead casing connection failure, due to combined high tension and collapse loads, allowed the topmost several ‘joints’ of production casing, along with casing hanger and seal assembly (for which the lock-down ring, a safeguard against upward displacement, was purposefully not installed), to be hydraulically displaced upward in to the blowout preventer bore. Questions of blowout preventer operability and malfunction aside, the shearing blind rams on even a deepwater blowout preventer stack were not designed to reliably sever high-strength, heavy wall production casing.

BP’s decision to defer the setting of a cement plug in the the production casing until after riser displacement to seawater ought to receive serious scrutiny, but the outcome (viz., sudden and catastrophic loss of well control) would not have been materially different if they had set a cement plug first in as much as the well is almost certainly flowing up the production casing annulus.

Getting back to BP’s failure to evaluate the integrity of zonal isolation afforded by primary cementation of the production casing before commencing to prepare a subsea well cased in to a confirmed high-pressure oil and gas reservoir for temporary abandonment, the industry needs to revisit the wisdom of this practice, commonplace as it may (or may not) be. As low as the actuarial probability of this catastrophic loss of well integrity and control may have been, the consequential costs for this failure are beyond extraordinary, making the overall risk — probability of occurrence times consequential costs — of sufficient magnitude to merit a more circumspect approach to preparing and vetting subsea production wells for temporary post-drilling suspension pending completion.

In the end, Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron (the BOP manufacturer) will be found neither grossly negligent nor principally responsible for this disaster — culpability will rest entirely with BP, as perpetrators of one of the most colossal and avoidable risk management failures in offshore drilling history.

Deepwater wells of the type currently out of control in the GoM can be drilled at tolerable risk vis-a-vis loss of life, loss of capital, and economic and environmental damage, and some operators are presently doing just that. BP’s preparedness to take what appear to be ill-considered technical and operational risks in the case of the Macondo Prospect well (and, perhaps, on other projects) should not foreclose the possibility for other operators — and even a reformed BP — to continue the development of deepwater oil and gas resources in the GoM within a more pro-active and prescriptive regulatory framework that dispenses with the current de-facto environment of laissez-faire self-‘oversight’ in favor of a regulatory framework more closely resembling that adopted for U.K. waters as a result of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster. U.K. operators must provide compelling evidence of safety and reliability in their procedures and designs, at risks that are (by statute) “as low as reasonably practicable” (ALARP), not simple good-faith assurances that “we know what we’re doing because we’re the ones who are doing it.”

By the way, BP inadvertently admitted their serious failures in terms of safety and best drilling practices when Tony Hayward made this statement:

In an interview with The Sunday Times, he refused to blame BP personnel for the disaster. “Seven things went wrong,” he said. “The cement that seals the well failed, the casing failed, the pressure tests failed, the procedures to detect gas in the well failed, the activation of the blowout preventer [a subsea failsafe device] failed, the automatic preventer trigger failed, and the features in the preventer allowing us to activate it later failed.”

He said there was “absolutely no evidence” that the spill was a reflection of a poor safety culture within BP, or that $3 billion of cost cuts he has made were to blame.
BP faces ban on future American operations

In other words, because of lax business practices not just one, but 7, things went wrong. How could 7 things going wrong in this way indicate anything other than a reflection of a poor safety culture withint BP? A single thing going wrong would a be an accident iun some cases, 7 would be a verification of the internal problems with safety BP appears to suffer from.

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