We know what happened at the Deepwater Horizon rig. Here’s why it happened.

A follow-up to Sources of reliable information about the Gulf Oil Spill, going from what happened to why it happened.  Slowly pieces of the puzzle come to light, as the following excerpts show.

(A)  An update on the situation.

  1. On defensive, BP readies dome to contain spill“, New York Times, 3 May 2010
  2. Details about the dome:  Fact Sheet about the Subsea Oil Recovery System 
  3. BP oil leak likely far less than 100,000 bpd“, Reuters, 4 May 2010 –BP can only guess at the flow.
  4. BP gives Congress gloomy outlook on gulf oil spill“, Los Angeles Times, 5 May 2010 — The spill might increase from 5 to 60 thousand b/day.

(B)  Possible causes of the explosion

  1. BP oil leak likely far less than 100,000 bpd“, Wall Street Journal, 30 April 2010 — A likely cause of the explosion.
  2. Leaking Oil Well Lacked Safeguard Device“, Wall Street Journal, 28 April 2010 — No remote switch to active the blow-out preventer valve.

(C)  Scraps of history explaining why this happened

(1)  Many safety procedures were voluntary, despite a history of violations and fatalities.  From the Wall Street Journal:

The Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling, in June proposed new stricter safety rules, but they haven’t yet been implemented, according to agency records.

The agency found that 21 deaths and injuries between 2000 and 2007 involving offshore drilling could be linked to 6 causes, including communication failures, a lack of written procedures and the failure of supervisors to enforce existing rules. The agency is proposing mandatory requirements to reduce the number of incidents, replacing a system under which many safety procedures were voluntary.

(2)   Update:  “U.S. exempted BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study“, Washington Post, 5 May 2010

The Interior Department exempted BP’s calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis last year, according to government documents, after three reviews of the area concluded that a massive oil spill was unlikely.

(3)  Experts worried that a blow-out preventer might fail on a deep well

“Can a rig’s blowout preventer (BOP) equipment shear the pipe to be used in a given drilling program at the most demanding condition to be expected, and at what pressure? Shear rams may be a drilling operation’s last line of defense for safety and environmental protection.”  A study by West Engineering Services for the US Minerals Management Service, 24 September 2004 (source)

The well control function of last resort is to shear pipe and secure the well with the sealing shear ram. As a result, failure to shear when executing this final option would be expected to result in a major safety and/or environmental event. Improved strength in drill pipe, combined with larger and heavier sizes resulting from deeper drilling, adversely affects the ability of a given ram BOP to successfully shear and seal the pipe in use. WEST is currently aware of several failures to shear when conducting shear tests using the drill pipe that was to be used in the well.

As stated in a mini shear study recently done for the MMS, only three recent new-build rigs out of fourteen were found able to shear pipe at their maximum rated water depths. Only half of the operators accepting a new-build rig chose to require a shear ram test during commissioning or acceptance. This grim snapshot illustrates the lack of preparedness in the industry to shear and seal a well with the last line of defense against a blowout.

(4)  Another cause lax regulation:  Interior Dept. OIG assails ‘culture of ethical failure’ (from the Government Documents Blog)

In three scathing reports delivered to Congress on September 10, Department of Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney detailed a “culture of ethical failure” within Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency responsible for collecting oil and gas revenues, and proposed a series of recommendations, including an enhanced ethics program and random drug testing, to address “very serious misconduct.”

One of the reports concluded that Greg Smith, Program Director of the Royalty-In-Kind (RIK) Program, had received $30,000 in outside employment marketing Geomatrix Consultants, Inc. to “various oil and gas companies, most of whom, because of their business relationships with RIK, were considered prohibited sources.” The report said Smith also “received almost $1,000 in gifts from the oil and gas industry and engaged in sex with two subordinates and drug use with at least one subordinate. When interviewed by the OIG, Smith minimized the drug use and sexual activity. In addition, we learned that he also suggested to other RIK employees that they should lie to OIG investigators.”

A second report focusing on the RIK program concluded that from 2002 to 2006, “19 RIK marketers and other RIK employees – approximately 1/3 of the entire RIK staff – had socialized with, and had received a wide array of gifts from, oil and gas companies with whom the employees were conducting official business. With respect to eight specific RIK employees, these gifts exceeded the allowable limits.” In a cover memo accompanying all three reports, Devaney described a “culture of substance abuse and promiscuity in the RIK program” and noted that “[s]exual relationships with prohibited sources cannot, by definition, be arms-length.”

The third report concluded that Lucy Denett, Associate Director of Minerals Revenue Management (MRM), “had acted together with her Special Assistant, Jimmy Mayberry, to create a lucrative contract for Mayberry” upon his retirement from MMS. “Moreover, we determined that Mayberry actually drafted the Statement of Work for the contract while he was still employed by MMS and that former MMS Deputy Associate Director Milton Dial participated personally and substantially in awarding the contract to Mayberry.” The report said the case “is being referred to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for whatever action it deems appropriate.”

The Devaney memo said that “[t]he single-most serious problem our investigations revealed is a pervasive culture of exclusivity, exempt from the rules that govern all other employees of the Federal Government.” The investigations, Devaney wrote, uncovered “a relatively small group of individuals wholly lacking in acceptance of or adherence to government ethical standards; management that through passive neglect, at best, or purposeful ignorance, at worst, was blind to easily discernible misconduct; and a program that had aggressive goals and admirable ideals, but was launched without the necessary internal controls in place to ensure conformity with one of its most important principles: ‘Maintain the highest ethical and professional standards.’”

Afterword

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