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Little learned in the year after Deepwater tragedy
Washington politicians abdicated responsibilities
Today marks the first anniversary of the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the U.S. Unfortunately, most Americans, including our politicians, are suffering from collective amnesia about that tragic event that cost 11 lives, destroyed thousands of jobs, polluted thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico and damaged the economies of five states. As tragic as all those events were (some are still ongoing), media attention has moved on to the royal wedding, the next earthquake and, of course, breathless coverage of American Idol. At the same time, our politicians, especially those in Washington, have used the lack of media attention to abdicate their responsibilities to make offshore drilling safer; in fact, they are actively working to make it less safe, shocking as that seems.
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has taken a novel approach to improving offshore drilling regulation by actually weakening it. Rather than encouraging the modernization of regulations and increasing the budgets for agencies charged with overseeing offshore operations, Hastings is actively working to rush drilling-permit review, further hamstringing an already overloaded federal agency. Last week, Hastings passed out of his committee three bills that he claims improve safety that actually do the opposite. The Putting the Gulf Back to Work Act, the Restarting American Offshore Leasing Now Act and the Reversing President Obama's Offshore Moratorium Act are all intended to do the same things: bash the president, undermine the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) review of drilling permits, and rush into new areas of U.S. waters before any material lessons learned from BP's Macondo well disaster are even considered. In his severe criticisms of President Obama, Hastings has conveniently ignored the fact that, just three weeks prior to the BP well blowout, the president proposed new drilling areas outside of the Gulf of Mexico. We now know that this courageous step (the first taken by any president since Nixon) was rewarded by the catastrophe that scuttled those plans only a few weeks later.
At the same time House Republicans are seeking to weaken offshore safety, Congress as a whole is ignoring the problem of the statutory limit on liability for damages caused by offshore operators. It remains at $75 million, the limit set in 1990 when the Oil Pollution Act was passed in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, which protects small companies that operate offshore. This is one of the key lessons that we have not taken to heart since the BP blowout. Most people don't realize that there are only five or six companies out of the dozen or so that operate in deep water who could have even survived an incident of this magnitude. The cost to BP for cleanup and damages could be more than $40 billion by some estimates. This is a staggering number, and multiples of the enterprise values of half those companies that operate there. Had this blowout happened to one of the smaller companies, be assured that all of the clean-up costs and damages would have fallen to you, the taxpayer, after that company filed for bankruptcy. This is one stark reality that many in Washington don't want you to understand, and one that is still not being addressed.
There were several other painful realities that became apparent during the disaster of last summer. First, the industry did not know how to contain a deep-water blowout. Second, it is still using 40-year-old oil cleanup technology. And third, blowout preventers have a high failure rate. Unfortunately, having witnessed the results of these hard lessons, we still haven't done much to correct these failures. To be sure, there are companies now being formed to do deep-water containment. In typical fashion, though, the effort is diluted, with smaller companies utilizing Helix Energy Services, a private, for-profit operation, and the majors forming a co-op called the Marine Well Containment Company. It's unclear what will happen in the next accident, such as who pays if a small operator goes bankrupt after a large spill, not a trivial matter. Some advances will come eventually in spill cleanup, but will be slow unless the government takes a leading role, which, so far it is wont to do.
Which leaves us with the blowout preventer. Everyone in the industry has known for years that blowout preventers have a high failure rate, but no one really focused on that failure rate until the BP blowout. The recent forensics report from Det Norske Veritas on the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer probably raised more questions than it answered, especially after managers for the study admitted to flaws in its own computer models that led to its conclusions and recommendations. The solution from the industry and the federal government? Let's go back to work with no fundamental changes or redesign, depending completely on the subsea well containment companies when the next failure occurs.
The last year has been an odyssey where the disaster in the Gulf led many to hope that finally we were going to focus on a comprehensive energy policy, improve safety and protect the environment. To the disappointment of many, including me, none of these objectives was reached; indeed, they are not even being contemplated as all of our politicians, having just finished a re-election cycle a few months ago, are gearing up for the next one that comes a little over a year from now. We don't want to let trivial things like protecting human life and the environment interfere with the game of politics, do we? It seems that, even in the face of catastrophe, we really haven't learned any of the important lessons we desperately need to learn.
Cavnar, a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, is the author of "Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout."
Read the original article.
The Huffington Post
October 19, 2010
Too Little, Too Soon: Six Months After the Blowout
by Bob Cavnar
Today marks the six-month anniversary of the blowout of BP’s Mississippi Canyon Block 252 well in the Gulf of Mexico, now famously known as the Macondo well. The disaster, which cost the lives of 11 good men, also exposed the dangers and incalculable risks to our environment of drilling on the open ocean in thousands of feet of water. Up until the night of April 20, most Americans had no idea that we were even drilling in the extreme conditions of the deepwater, much less understood the razor-thin margins of error that exist when exploring for oil in that territory.
As the crisis unfolded on our television screens, we watched with fascination as extremely sophisticated robots operated on the seafloor, attempting, in vain, to get the blowing out well under control. No one seemed to know that to do… the federal government had no deepwater oil and gas experts; the industry had no technology or procedures for managing a blowout 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. No technology existed to contain or collect oil in a deep-ocean environment.
This was an accident that simply wasn’t supposed to happen. Even though government bureaucrats, Coast Guard officers, and politicians all asserted that they were in charge, in reality, no one was, except for BP, who had started its campaign of finger-pointing in the very first hours of the crisis to deflect blame away from itself as its well fouled the Gulf of Mexico.The disinformation campaign and mismanagement of the crisis began immediately. In the early hours, private fireboats fought the fire on the blazing rig as the Coast Guard, who had successfully rescued the survivors the first night, stood by and just watched. Firefighting on offshore drilling rigs is not part of its mission, with that responsibility falling to private operators. Because there was no central authority on site, the fireboats, desperately trying to save the rig, deluged its decks with millions of gallons of seawater, eventually flooding the vessel and actually hastening its ultimate sinking two days later. After the rig was lost, the Coast Guard announced that the well had stopped flowing, even as BP representatives stood mute right next to them, knowing full well that the assertion was false. While Rear Admiral Mary Landry was making the remarkable announcement that no oil was flowing from the well, BP was desperately attempting to shut in the damaged blowout preventer with remotely operated vehicles as oil roared out of the well only feet from where they were working. Ultimately, the truth that the well was flowing tens of thousands of barrels per day eventually became public. However, to this day, BP has never disclosed their estimate of flowrate, and the government let them get away with shutting in, and eventually killing the well without first measuring the flow. Because of this fact, BP will certainly dispute the government’s estimates of flowrate when it comes time to calculate the per-barrel fines and other liabilities.
As the crisis grew, BP implemented a very carefully executed public relations plan; while appearing to be transparent with numerous “technical briefings” and press opportunities, they never really gave much information. Besides hiding the flow rate, BP kept vital information from the public for weeks and months. They poured hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic dispersants into the ocean even as the EPA ordered them to severely limit their use. After BP began providing live video feeds from the seafloor, these feeds oddly became blurry or simply unavailable during critical operations. The company’s mantra became “all is going according to plan,” even though they were making things up as they went along as each new attempt to control the well failed. The only real BP casualty was Tony Hayward, who lost his job and was shipped off to Russia after becoming a one-man gaffe machine.
As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, we began the national debate over energy policy asking why we were even in the deepwater. Some environmentalists predicted apocalypse, accusing big oil of raping the earth and poisoning the populace, ignoring their own use of fossil fuels. The industry retreated to their familiar territory, making the discussion all about money and using their employees as pawns, even as they avoid US taxes and employment laws by flagging their rigs and locating their headquarters in foreign countries. The politicians, doing what they do best, played politics. The left called for drilling bans and criminal charges; the right, ignoring eight years of Bush administration deregulation and rubber-stamping of drilling permits, severely criticized the very organization they helped create, calling for even more deregulation at the same time. Scrambling to keep up with the crisis, the Obama administration imposed a ban on all offshore drilling, eventually limiting it to deepwater operations, while at the same time slow-playing all offshore permits trying to figure out what to do.
The well was officially killed and cemented on Sept. 19; under extreme political pressure from the upcoming fall elections, as well as from Gulf Coast politicians and businesses, the Secretary of Interior relented and lifted the government ban on deepwater drilling on Oct. 11, justifying the move by just adding yet another layer of new certifications, but no tangible improvements to safety. The new drilling rules requires no redesign of blowout preventers or control systems, merely mandate third party certifications that they are “… capable of cutting any drill pipe… ,” knowing full well that no blowout preventer can actually do that. The new rule also requires a certification from the CEO that the company is in compliance with all the new government regulations, but there’s no mention of that CEO actually having to be within reach of US laws. Salazar left open the door for new regulations some time in the future, including redundant shear rams for blowout preventers, but has so far stopped short of any real reform to deepwater drilling safety.
So, six months after the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States, we are poised to go back into the deepwater, doing the same thing we were doing before the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon, with the same equipment, same rigs, and same systems. Once again, politics has trumped saving human lives and the environment, and here we are, doing too little, too soon.
Read the original post at The Huffington Post.
About Those ROV Feeds
Daily Hurricane - August 13, 2010
By Bob Cavnar
As the press has lost interest in this story, even though the blowout well is far from dead, the information coming from BP and the Unified Command has also begun to trail off. In his presser yesterday, Adm Allen sounded downright bored and so ready to put this behind him. The press, having grown to a very small group compared to two weeks ago, continue to ask the same questions over and over, and now that the Admiral has walked back his "I am the national incident commander, and I say this relief well will be completed," to "we're doing pressure testing and we don't know...." the press (what's left of it) has been doing their job of asking about what they're really going to do. It's just that very few of the public actually care. In the meantime the ROV feeds that are supposed to be showing the well and operations around the well now look mostly like this:
Currently, wellhead monitoring is being done during the announced "pressure test" for last night. The Gulf Watchers tell me that the Boa
Deep Sub C ROVs are indeed monitoring the wellhead, but those feeds have now been hidden from view for days. When asked for a third time in this presser yesterday, Adm Allen was dismissive, saying that "occassionally, these ROVs are down for maintenance". They're not down for maintenance when you can see them off in the distance on other ROV feeds staring intently at something that looks strangely like the wellhead. The Admiral also said that the static kill pressure readings were disclosed on the Unified Command site several days ago. Several people I know have searched both the new site and the old, and no pressure data disclosure exists anywhere we can find.
Clearly there are things going on behind the scenes that BP and the government doesn't want us to see. They have successfully gotten the well off of the front page and television, just as they intended. We'll continue to watch for any real information. Now it's the "pressure test" that was supposedly carried out last night that we haven't yet heard about.
In the meantime, we're as much in the dark as those ROV feeds were not getting.
Read the original article here...
Admiral Allen is Confused--So Now is Everyone Else
Daily Hurricane - August 12, 2010
By Bob Cavnar
For the last several days, I've been trying to figure out what BP is doing and what is the actual condition of BP's MC252 well after their "static kill" and cementing procedure last week apparently didn't work. You'll recall that when Kent Wells announced this procedure, he actually used the words "killed" and "dead". In his July 19th McBriefing, he said,
"If we can do the static kill, it might kill - might kill just in the casing, it might kill in the annulus, it might kill both but it should accelerate or at least complement improve the relief well."
Then during his July 21st McBriefing, Wells said this:
"So one thing I want to stress is the static kill in no way slows down the relief well activity. That's continuing exactly as planned. We're looking at the static kill as an option to actually accelerate the final killing of the well. Now, depending upon - because we don't know whether the flows up the casing, the annulus or both, it's difficult for me to predict what the static kill could do. But I would put it in the range of it could go from - it could kill the well all the way to it couldn't kill the well. But in either case, what I want to stress is we will continue on with the relief well and even if the static kill had killed the well, we will confirm that with the relief well or if it hadn't killed the well, then we would kill it from the bottom. So I'd like us to think of it - it's a very good option to accelerate the killing process without getting in the way of the relief well." (emphasis added)
So, the narrative building here is that the static kill was low risk, could kill the well from the top, and that it could actually speed up the relief well. I knew, from the very first moment this was mentioned, that BP would do the new top kill, rebranded as the "static kill".
To add to the argument to go ahead with the kill, Adm. Allen said in his July 22nd briefing:
"We have a pressure head up there that would help us now fill the top part of the well with mud. That would actually ultimately enhance the relief well effort that would take place five to seven days later." (emphasis added)
On August 2nd and 3rd, BP ran the "static kill" pumping 2,300 barrels of mud. Early in the morning on the 4th, BP issued a press release saying the the well had reached a "static condition" with well pressure "controlled by the hydrostatic pressure of the drilling mud." In his McBriefing later that day, Wells actually said that when they pumped the mud, they could actually see it go into the reservoir by pressures, and that they pumped up to 15 barrels per minute. They studiously avoided the terms "dead" and "killed". During the briefing, Wells also said:
"And what we - what we're doing now is, every six hours, we just inject a little more mud into the well, just to continue to give ourselves confidence that we can do that, keep our equipment live, and we're seeing a very, very static set of conditions as we continue to monitor the pressure, which is all very encouraging." (empasis added)
With all the encouraging signs, Steve Chu approved pumping cement, which they did on the 5th. In a briefing on the 6th, Doug Suttles declared victory, say that the "...cement job is performing as expected". He also said that they pumped 500 barrels of cement, leaving about 200 inside the casing.
All was right with the world. Except, it wasn't. Day before yesterday, Adm. Allen announced they were going to start a "pressure test", babbling about the annulus and raising the ominous spectre that they are still actually communicated to the reservoir. Wells confirmed that fear in the afternoon, admitting that they indeed had 4,200 psi on the well when it's supposed to be dead. At the seafloor, the well should have no more than 2,200 psi on it, and conceivable less, if the hydrostatic of the mud in the closed well had overcome reservoir pressure. Then it got really confusing. Wells said that it wouldn't hold 4,200 psi because of "bubbles" leaking out of the wellhead, implying that they are pumping on it to keep it there, but that they're going to "test" it by relieving pressure. ?? Also, the more Adm. Allen explains what's going on, the more the press gets confused. Hell, I understand this business and I'm confused.
Read the whole article here...
Questions BP Needs to Answer
The Daily Hurricane
August 8, 2010
We all know that BP and the US government have been doing everything they can to get the blowout well off of the television news. We've been talking for weeks how it was also to BP's advantage to not measure the flow from the well before killing it so they can argue lower fines. Since Adm Allen ordered BP to set the "capping stack" on July 8th, they have gone through one machination to another to avoid actually producing the well to the surface so the volume could be measured. Here are some of those actions that BP has (or not) taken to avoid measuring the flow since May. I'll note that all actions were taken with the blessings of the US government.
Read the whole article here.