Did BP Keep Drilling Even Though It Had Lost Control of the Oil Well Much Earlier?

The New York Times noted yesterday:

Even though it was more than a month before the explosion, the [Deepwater Horizon] rig’s safety audit was conducted against the backdrop of what seems to have been a losing battle to control the well.

On the March visit, Lloyd’s investigators reported “a high degree of focus and activity relating to well control issues,” adding that “specialists were aboard the rig to conduct subsea explosions to help alleviate these well control issues.”

As I pointed out last month:

The Deepwater Horizon blew up on April 20th, and sank a couple of days later. BP has been criticized for failing to report on the seriousness of the blow out for several weeks.

However, as a whistleblower previously told 60 Minutes, there was an accident at the rig a month or more prior to the April 20th explosion:

[Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon, and one of the last workers to leave the doomed rig] … says going faster caused the bottom of the well to split open, swallowing tools and that drilling fluid called “mud.”

“We actually got stuck. And we got stuck so bad we had to send tools down into the drill pipe and sever the pipe,” Williams explained.

That well was abandoned and Deepwater Horizon had to drill a new route to the oil. It cost BP more than two weeks and millions of dollars.

As Bloomberg reports today, problems at the well actually started in February:

BP Plc was struggling to seal cracks in its Macondo well as far back as February, more than two months before an explosion killed 11 and spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

It took 10 days to plug the first cracks, according to reports BP filed with the Minerals Management Service that were later delivered to congressional investigators. Cracks in the surrounding rock continued to complicate the drilling operation during the ensuing weeks. Left unsealed, they can allow explosive natural gas to rush up the shaft.

“Once they realized they had oil down there, all the decisions they made were designed to get that oil at the lowest cost,” said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has been working with congressional investigators probing the disaster. “It’s been a doomed voyage from the beginning.”

***

On Feb. 13, BP told the minerals service it was trying to seal cracks in the well about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast, drilling documents obtained by Bloomberg show. Investigators are still trying to determine whether the fissures played a role in the disaster.

***

The company attempted a “cement squeeze,” which involves pumping cement to seal the fissures, according to a well activity report. Over the following week the company made repeated attempts to plug cracks that were draining expensive drilling fluid, known as “mud,” into the surrounding rocks.

BP used three different substances to plug the holes before succeeding, the documents show.

“Most of the time you do a squeeze and then let it dry and you’re done,” said John Wang, an assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering at Penn State in University Park, Pennsylvania. “It dries within a few hours.”

Repeated squeeze attempts are unusual and may indicate rig workers are using the wrong kind of cement, Wang said.

In other words, the well started losing integrity in February, and may have never been permanently stabilized. If cracks in the well were never properly sealed, then the well may have been unstable starting in February and continuing until the April 20 explosion. (There is substantial evidence that there are cracks in the well now.)

Bloomberg continues:

In early March, BP told the minerals agency the company was having trouble maintaining control of surging natural gas, according to e-mails released May 30 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the spill.

***

While gas surges are common in oil drilling, companies have abandoned wells if they determine the risk is too high.

***

On March 10, BP executive Scherie Douglas e-mailed Frank Patton, the mineral service’s drilling engineer for the New Orleans district, telling him: “We’re in the midst of a well control situation.”

The incident was a “showstopper,” said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has consulted with the Interior Department on offshore drilling safety. “They damn near blew up the rig.”

And the wives of oil rig workers killed in the blast testified that their husbands reported that the rig had problems controlling well pressure weeks before explosion.

In other words, not only is it possible that the well casing was somewhat unstable for months before the blow out, but BP may have ignored standard drilling practices by failing to abandon the well when the natural gas began surging too violently.

Sure, the rig didn’t actually catch fire and sink until April, but cracks in the well and dangerous natural gas surges may mean that BP never fully had control of the well.

I’m not the only one asking such questions. It is worth re-reading the following passage from the Bloomberg article quoted above:

On Feb. 13, BP told the minerals service it was trying to seal cracks in the well … drilling documents obtained by Bloomberg show. Investigators are still trying to determine whether the fissures played a role in the disaster.

Damaged Blowout Preventer

Whether or not BP had lost control of the well earlier, it was confirmed yesterday that BP had damaged its key piece of safety equipment – the blowout preventer – earlier, yet kept drilling.

The Los Angeles Times reported Monday:

BP officials knew about a problem on a crucial well safety device at least three months before the catastrophic April 20 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico but failed to repair it, according to testimony Tuesday from the company’s well manager.

Ronald Sepulvado testified that he was aware of a leak on a control pod atop the well’s blowout preventer and notified his supervisor in Houston about the problem, which Sepulvado didn’t consider crucial. The 450-ton hydraulic device, designed to prevent gas or oil from blasting out of the drill hole, failed during the disaster, which killed 11 men on the Deepwater Horizon rig and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Investigators said BP did not disclose the matter to the appropriate federal agency and failed to suspend drilling operations until the problem was resolved, as required by law.

The New York Times adds the following details:

Federal investigators said Tuesday at a panel that continuing to drill despite problems related to the blowout preventer might have been a violation of federal regulations that require a work stoppage if the equipment is found not to work properly.

While the equipment report says the device’s control panels were in fair condition, it also cites a range of problems, including a leaking door seal, a diaphragm on the purge air pump needing replacement and several error-response messages.

The device’s annulars, which are large valves used to control wellbore fluids, also encountered “extraordinary difficulties” surrounding their maintenance, the report said.

And as I pointed out in May:

Several weeks before the Gulf oil explosion, a key piece of safety equipment – the blowout preventer – was damaged.

As the Times of London reports:

[Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon, and one of the last workers to leave the doomed rig] claimed that the blowout preventer was then damaged when a crewman accidentally moved a joystick, applying hundreds of thousands of pounds of force. Pieces of rubber were found in the drilling fluid, which he said implied damage to a crucial seal. But a supervisor declared the find to be “not a big deal”, Mr Williams alleged.

UC Berkeley engineering professor Bob Bea told 60 Minutes that a damaged blowout preventer not only may lead to a catastrophic accident like the Gulf oil spill, but leads to inaccurate pressure readings, so that the well operator doesn’t know the real situation, and cannot keep the rig safe.

There are many other examples of criminal negligence by BP, Halliburton and Transocean as well. See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

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