Deconstructing the BP Oil Spill
By Nicola Smith
Valley News Staff Writer - January 7, 2011
In the early morning of April 21, oil and gas industry executive Bob Cavnar was at home in Houston when he heard reports about an oil rig that had exploded the night before in the Gulf of Mexico, some 50 miles off the Louisiana coast.
He turned to a source he considered reliable and immediate: gCaptain.com, a website for maritime and offshore professionals, which was reporting on the accident. A post written shortly after the explosion stated tersely, “The Deepwater Horizon is on fire and the flames are 200 feet tall. All personnel have abandoned ship.”
“The first thing I thought was, this is really bad. Hydrocarbons (oil and gas) should never get to the rig,” Cavnar recalled in an interview in the White River Junction office of Chelsea Green Publishing, which recently released his book Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout, an examination of the oil spill and what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
Right away, Cavnar began contacting people he knew and tracking the accident in the media. “Through monitoring websites and talking to industry officials privately, I knew almost instantly that all the safety systems had failed,” Cavnar said.
Eleven men had been killed in the explosion, and many more injured. Although the Coast Guard and other vessels fought the fire, the rig sank to the bottom of the Gulf on April 22. This was only the beginning of the story.
Cavnar is currently the CEO of Luca Technologies, a company based in Golden, Colo., that uses newer and more sustainable biotechnologies to bring abandoned gas and oil wells back into production. Although he lives in Houston most of the year, Cavnar and his wife, Gracie Cavnar, maintain a second home in Woodstock.
It was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a friend of Cavnar -- and a prominent blurber on the book's back cover -- who introduced him to Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin.
Cavnar, who also maintains the Daily Hurricane, a website dedicated to energy and political issues, had been working on a book about reforming the oil and gas industry when the BP oil spill happened. This was a subject too big to ignore, and Chelsea Green worked overtime to get the book into print.
“I think because he's writing as an industry insider he can really explain the technological issues,” Baldwin said.
In the interview, as in the book, Cavnar outlined the history of the operation before turning to what went wrong, which was nearly everything.
In his account, the Deepwater Horizon, a floating, deepwater rig, was operated by Transocean Ltd., one of the most experienced companies in deepwater drilling. The well site, called Mississippi Canyon Block 52, was leased by British Petroleum (BP) in 2008 from the Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service, which, since the accident and the ensuing scandal over its clubby relationship with the oil industry, has been reorganized as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Because of difficulties with a first rig at the site, and damage to it from a hurricane, the replacement rig, the Deepwater Horizon, was moved into place by Transocean in January 2010. The well, which was called Macondo by BP, began to pump oil in February. The crew had another name for it: the “well from hell,” because of problems with control of the oil flow that plagued the operation from early on.
Despite the problems, the Transocean crew had compiled an exemplary safety record, seven years without an accident. The irony is, as Cavnar notes in the book, that earlier on April 20, BP and Transocean officials had gathered at the rig to congratulate the crew for that record. That night, all hell broke loose.
What quickly became apparent after the disaster, when it was clear that BP's efforts to stop the gush of oil into the Gulf weren't working, was that this would be the biggest oil spill in American history, with enormous environmental and economic ramifications for both the region and the country.
What was unknown was how much oil was going to leak, how to cap the well, and the reason for the accident.
Although BP disputes the figure, the Department of Energy currently estimates that 5 million barrels of oil flowed into the Gulf. The leaking oil despoiled close to 1,000 miles of shoreline along the Gulf Coast and, according to a New York Times report in August, may have contributed to the deaths or illness of at least 7,000 birds, turtles and dolphins, though some of those deaths could not be traced directly to the oil spill. Although many of the Gulf beaches have been cleaned up, oil still appears on shore, Cavnar said, citing a tar mat that washed up on an Alabama beach in early December.
Although he has been in the business long enough to recall the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which dumped some 257,000 barrels into Prince William Sound and was, until the Deepwater Horizon, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the events at Deepwater Horizon still shocked him.
“Frankly, I was surprised it happened,” Cavnar said. “We've been lulled into this belief that it wouldn't happen. But when safety systems don’t work or are ignored, there’s no Plan B.”
Why there was no Plan B is part of the book's raison d'etre. Cavnar recreates the events that preceded and followed the explosion, using his own sources and records from the congressional Deepwater Horizon Investigation Committee that met last spring.
The book examines the safety records of both BP and Transocean, the corporate culture at BP that Cavnar maintains contributed to lax oversight and increased pressure on the rig's crew to pump oil, and the design and mechanics of the systems that were supposed to prevent a blowout.
The method used in drilling for oil offshore in deep water, which is generally defined as water more than 1,000 feet deep, relies on very sophisticated technology, Cavnar said. But with high-end technology also comes high risk. “The margin for error is very thin in offshore business,” he said. “When something goes wrong, it's more catastrophic. One guy described it as heart surgery on the moon.”
There is still speculation as to why the all-important blowout preventer, or BOP, a 54-foot-long, underwater structure that is designed to seal off a blown well, failed. Essentially, all the systems that were in place to avert disaster, didn't. There was both human and technological error, a total system collapse. At root, Cavnar said, the fundamental design of blowout preventers is flawed, and a complete overhaul of them, and safety and disaster prevention systems, must be completed before deepwater drills can safely operate offshore.
Although President Obama imposed a six-month moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling after the oil spill, it was lifted in October, a move that Cavnar said is risky and premature because design flaws in the blowout preventers haven't been addressed.
You might call Cavnar an equal opportunity gorer of oxes. In his analysis, both BP and the Obama administration come in for strong criticism. “What I would really have liked to have seen (after the oil spill),” he said, “is someone in government who really knew what they were looking at, and transparency from BP.”
BP has, he said, one of the worst safety records in the business, and a long history of putting profit over regulations. (A spokesman for BP said the company had no comment on Cavnar's book.)
As for the Obama administration, said Cavnar, it was so eager to demonstrate that it was different from the Bush administration, that it kept the oil and gas industry at arms' length. Because of that, the administration had almost no contacts to call on after the spill; it hadn't cultivated the experts in oil technology who might have been able to help.
A Texas native who grew up in Fort Worth, went to college in Michigan and earned an MBA from Southern Methodist University, Cavnar has worked in the oil and gas field since he was 22, and began working on drill rigs in 1978.
Now 57, tall and rugged, he's enough of an old hand to be skeptical about industry claims to both infallible safety records and indefinite oil supplies. But he also cocks an eyebrow at the environmental groups that have called for a complete ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, calling such a ban unrealistic in the short-term.
“When people say to me, ‘We should just stop drilling offshore,' I say, ‘How'd you get to your meeting today?’ ”
“Environmentalists are always hyperbolic, and industry hides and obfuscates,” he said. His hope, he said, is that both can find common ground on some environmental issues. “I think they can get a lot closer than they are today.”
The book also looks at the long-term ramifications for American energy and environmental policy from the perspective of someone who has worked in the oil and gas field for more than 30 years. The problem is bigger than the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, although that's plenty big enough. The problem, Cavnar said, lies in the lack of a coherent, long-term vision on how to move away from dependence on oil, both imported and domestic, as an energy source, a conundrum that has dogged the country for decades. “That's what makes me crazy,” Cavnar said.
On a recent trip to Japan, Cavnar met with business executives and to a person, he said, “they talked about the long view.”
What is missing in this country, he believes, is that long view, whether it is a strong, national emphasis on conservation, or the development of newer energy sources, like solar and wind power, or looking again at nuclear power, which environmental groups have generally shied away from because of concerns about safety and storage of nuclear waste.
Cavnar said the optimistic estimate for how long America can continue to rely on a home-produced gas and oil supply is 50 years.
“In the next 10 to 15 years, we're going to see effects of a decline if we don't take steps today,” he added. Government and the industry missed a big opportunity with the accident to talk frankly about the country's energy future differently, he said.
Reaction to the book has been largely positive, said Cavnar, who has appeared on The Today Show, MSNBC and C-SPAN, among other media outlets.
And although they may not say so publicly, some industry insiders have read it and contacted him to say they support his conclusions. Still, Cavnar is frustrated that, for so many, the reaction to the story is, it's over. Move on.
“I'm afraid it will take another accident for people to wake up,” he said.
Read the original article.
Vt. writer and ex-oil CEO examines the Gulf oil spill
WCAX.com - November 26, 2010
Bob Cavnar has worked in the oil industry for over 30 years. But now, the CEO turned author is blowing the whistle on the very business he made a career in. Cavnar's new book, "Disaster on the Horizon," explores the Gulf oil catastrophe off the Louisiana coast. Reporter Adam Sullivan recently sat down with Cavnar and has this report in the author's own words.
Cavnar: Well, first we can't forget that there were 11 men killed that night. That is the thing that I always try to talk about is that there are 11 families suffering this holiday season.
Cavnar: I have pretty harsh words for the industry, for the government, and for BP especially. They really made some dangerous decisions that caused the accident I believe.
Cavnar: They were rushing to try to get the well finished. But overall the management of the well and the lack of concern for things that could go wrong was a real contributing factor.
Cavnar: The regulator is living in the same small town as the guy drilling the well. And so their kids play soccer together, they see each other at church. It's a very, very close relationship and over years it turns into more of a business partnership.
Cavnar: And because we allow the companies that operate out there to self-certify, they say that they are operating safely and say that they are following the regulations; there is no real oversight.
Cavnar: All the politicians are focused on one thing, getting re-elected. That precludes them from making very tough decisions, outside of a huge crisis that forces decisions; it is very difficult for a politician today, even President Obama, to take these positions that need to be taken.
Cavnar: And because of the mass-media messaging machine that we have today, companies like BP and the government can basically control what the public sees. So that sense of urgency was really killed in this particular case, when it really should have called people to action.
Cavnar: We can't stop drilling off-shore, primarily because if we do, that's just more oil that we have to import from countries that hate us. So we have to maintain that. But what we need to learn is how to do it more safely with more oversight so this doesn't happen again.
Cavnar lives in Woodstock part-time. He's giving a talk Saturday at the Woodstock Historical Society. The lecture begins at 1:30 and is open to the public.
Adam Sullivan - WCAX News
Read the original interview on WCAX.com.
Book Examines Gulf Oil Spill
Vermont Public Radio - Wednesday, 11/24/10 4:50pm
By Neal Charnoff
What really happened on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico?
A new book by an industry insider gives a behind-the-scenes look at the worst oil well accident in U.S. history.
Bob Cavnar has spent thirty years working in the oil and gas industry.
His new book, "Disaster On The Horizon", examines the blowout, response and decisions made by BP, offshore drilling company Trans Ocean and the U.S. government.
Listen to the interview on VPR.net.
Firedoglake Book Salon Welcomes Bob Cavnar
Sunday, November 21, 2010 11:55 am Pacific time
Riki Ott, Host:
After having spent five months in the Gulf, I decided to read Bob Cavnar’s book of the story behind the Deepwater well blowout starting with chapter 7 on the “BP-government merger.” This was one of the most troubling twists in events that I had witnessed in the Gulf. I figured if he could shed some light on this, then maybe he would have frank insights on how we got into this mess – beyond the human error – and how we might avoid another.
Cavnar is, after all, an oilman with 30 years of experience in drilling and production operations, and in management of private and public companies, and I am an Alaska fisherman and survivor of the Exxon Valdez oil spill; hence, my skepticism.
The first page of chapter 7 convinced me that Disaster on the Horizon would be worth the read. “It was clear that the government didn’t have the expertise to manage the blowout on the seafloor and the beaches were being guarded by both private and local government officials who answered to BP.”
Check. This situation had caused puzzled local residents to ask at community forums, “Why is BP in charge? I thought this was America.”
Cavnar went on: “A co-dependent relationship was formed that went beyond traditional industry-government coziness.” Agreed. Although I was familiar with this problem from nearly 25 years of work to increase oil industry accountability in Alaska, what I saw in the Gulf was shockingly disorienting. According to Cavnar, the BP-government merger gelled on June 16 when President Obama, Tony Hayward, and the BP chairman agreed that BP would commit $20 billion over four years to cover damages and cleanup. That $20 billion, it turns out, was backed with US assets. In other words, Cavnar says, “the deal guarantees that BP will remain viable in the US since they need assets to pay the costs.”
So much for the free market, as Cavnar points out. So much also, in my opinion, for any hope that polluters – or criminals in BP’s case – will take U.S. environmental laws (or politicians) seriously. Obama’s win-win arrangement signals that America’s door is wide open for oil business, and if you screw up, no matter if you put thousands of “small people” in the Gulf out of work, the oil company will be protected and allowed to continue its business. Oil at all costs. The losers are the American people. (I could not help but think of Scotland, where the government maintains a Rogues’ Gallery of oil tankers. Companies that take too many risks or have too many close-calls are no longer welcome.)
I went back to the beginning of the book. Cavnar describes in gripping detail the scene of the blowout, then shares several insights on the nuts-and-bolts of the disaster. He emphasizes throughout the book that, in the oil patch, complacency and success breed disaster. For example, just hours before the blowout, Transocean and BP executives had recognized the 7-year safety record on the rig. Ironically, a few hours before the Exxon Valdez, there was a similar celebration for one billion barrels of oil transported without a major spill. Oops.
I was struck by two other factoids among the many details. So-called “blowout preventers” (BOPs) fail. A lot. Cavnar describes a 2009 industry study of 15,000 wells drilled in North America and the North Sea. Of the 11 cases where BOPs were activated, only 6 were successful in shutting in the well and preventing oil spills. That’s a 45 percent failure rate! If there was a fire station in my neighborhood and it only responded 50 percent the time, I’d move.
But no. Somehow this dismal safety record passed muster with the federal regulators. It gets worse. The old-Minerals-Management-Service-by-a-new-accronym, BOEMRE (pronounced “bummer” in Louisiana) decided to actually test the BOPs in the two relief wells that were drilled in response to the BP blowout. According to Cavnar, these two BOPs failed four tests. Cavnar wrote, “Transocean was preparing to splash faulty BOPs for blowout prevention on relief wells being drilled to kill a blowout caused by a faulty BOP. Jesus.”
Okay by now I’m kind of liking Cavnar. He admits that the space-age deepwater oil drilling technology has really leap-frogged beyond human ability to control it – and he gives a number of harrowing near-calamities to prove his point. He states the obvious: “There is little (or no) margin for error in deepwater…” And he describes the wild-west attitude of the oil and gas industry – how it gambles with safety, games with politicians (and presidents), and captures regulatory agencies with ease without any thought that the shortcuts companies take to enhance profits might affect other people’s lives. Like the 11 men incinerated on the Horizon and their families, or like all of the families and businesses in the Gulf of Mexico (or Alaska), or ditto if this had happened in your backyard.
Cavnar observes it seems that the oil industry has “learned little from this disaster or the previous ones, except for how to protect their public image.” I witnessed first-hand the great Gulf cover up. By controlling the story, BP was able to make the disaster appear less than it was and so minimize its liability in terms of fines and penalties and, more importantly, public outrage and demands for stricter regulations and laws.
In the end, Cavnar calls on us “to elect leaders who will take the necessary steps toward reform…” Elected leaders? I think not. Our leaders will only protect us if they hear one loud chorus from the people – like what happened in the 1970s after the Santa Barbara blowout and then Congress passed laws to better protect the environment or in 1990 when President H.W. Bush placed a 10-year blanket moratorium on new area offshore leasing in response to environmental concerns.
I hope Disaster on the Horizon motivates Americans to get informed and demand a full halt to deepwater oil production because the risks clearly outweigh the benefits, and because, as Cavnar points out, it is time for society “to move beyond our comfortable yet dangerous dependence on a fossil-fuel economy.”
Read the entire discussion on FDLBookSalon.com.
Bob Cavnar: Five Questions With A Deepwater Horizon Expert
By Richard Connelly, Fri., Nov. 12 2010
Bob Cavnar is an oil-industry insider who quickly became an expert-in-demand for reporters covering the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the resulting Gulf oil spill.
He's written a book on the event, Disaster on the Horizon, and will be at Brazos Bookstore to discuss it and sign copies from 3 to 4:30 p.m tomorrow.
Hair Balls had five questions for him.
5) What do you make of the investigative report and conclusions that have been released so far?
They are repeating what they're being told by BP, Chevron, Shell, and Exxon. Fred Bartlit's conclusion that no decisions were made pitting money against lives is a false comparison. Of course, no one decided to trade lives for money on April 20th. However, BP decided on lower cost casing design, ignoring increased risks. Bartlit has accepted BP's assertions almost at face value.
4) Was Deepwater Horizon a worst-case scenario, or could things have been far more destructive?
This was about as bad as it could get, except for the good fortune of good weather, calm seas, and an able rescue crew on the Damon Bankston. There was a fine line here between 11 deaths and over 100.
3) Do you trust the industry/federal government to fix things? Why or why not?
Just the opposite. Drilling rule changes are stalled in the courts.The major rule changes (increasing the $75 million liability cap and increasing the permit review time) both require congressional action, which simply won't happen under the Republicans. They'll use this as an opportunity for a showdown with the Obama administration. As time drags on, the administration will cave, allowing the rigs to go back to work with only superficial changes. No redesign of safety systems is even proposed.
2) How much did a cost-cutting philosophy contribute to the disaster?
Certainly the casing design increased the risk by eliminating a downhole barrier and increasing the chance of a bad cement job. Beyond that, though, was the complacency, overconfidence, and convoluted management structure that allowed for unchecked bad decisions. This is what started the disaster to go into motion. Due to lack of oversight, events compounded, causing the blowout.
1) What's one thing most people don't realize about what happened either in the event itself or dealing with the aftermath, and why is it important?
Even though the well has been off of the television for two months, the well was actually capped only 3 days ago. BP and the government never publicly disclosed the condition of the casing as they worked on it for two months.
Over 75 percent of the oil spewed into the Gulf never reached the surface. The estimate that it was "dispersed" or "dissipated" is unsupported by facts.
Read the entire Q&A on Houston Press.com
David Sirota AM 760
November 10, 2010
Author Bob Cavnar joins the show to discuss his book Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout. With thirty years in oil and gas operations, insider Bob Cavnar provides a candid, engaging, and chilling look at the industry, its resistance to regulation, and the government concessions that are now putting people and the coastlines in jeopardy. He brings the industry's technology and people to life, delivering the untold story of the blowout, response, and decisions made by BP, Transocean, and the US government. Ultimately, Cavnar charts a crucial course for how to avoid these disasters in the future.
Listen to the podcast here...
Houston Chronicle FuelFix blog
October 22, 2010
by Tom Fowler
For an oil industry executive and former drilling supervisor, Bob Cavnar can be pretty tough on his colleagues.
In his new book about the Deepwater Horizon accident, Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout,” he lays blame for the tragedy at the feet of not just BP and Transocean, but an attitude of complacency that he says grips all of the industry.
He digs into the details of the accident and response, hits on the history of BP, deep-water drilling and government regulation. He names names, and few come out of his analysis looking good.
Known to many as the founder of local news and views blog site The Daily Hurricane, Cavnar just took over as CEO of Luca Technologies, a Golden, Colo.-based firm that is developing technology for enhanced oil and gas production.
Cavnar took a few minutes between the new job and starting his book promotion tour to talk to me. Below are some excerpts:
In a nutshell, why do you think the accident happened?
I believe this whole incident was preventable and was really the fault of human error. The people on the rig failed to listen to the well as it became more and more dangerous.
Obviously there were design flaws. BP will take issue and say the design was fine, but I believe the well design is flawed because it had one less downhole barrier.
I quote [former Boots & Coots well control expert] Larry Flak, who says the best way to control a deepwater blowout is to not have one, because they’re so hard to control once you get gas above the BOP.
I don’t think it was necessarily one person’s fault. It was like in airplane accident where it takes at least three things to go wrong for there to be an accident, except in this case there were a whole lot more.
You don’t lay all the blame on BP, though. You put in on the Transocean rig crew as well.
[The late Transocean rig worker] Jason Anderson was doing his best but he was put in an untenable position, trying to finish a well that was not safe.
Transocean bears the responsibility for modifications to the BOP [he details those shortcomings quite well]. But on the decision to use the nitrified cement, to not circulate the well completely bottoms-up and to displace the riser with seawater before the cement job was complete: That was BP’s decision.
So you don’t believe BP’s version of events from the Bly Report, that the blowout came through the center of the well and not the annulus?
It seems real tortured to me that it came down from a production zone, up through the cement, and through two float valves. The more natural path is up the back side.
Why do you think the people on board made so many mistakes?
They were anxious to get off the well and had to move on to plug another well. They were under pressure from Houston. They were trying to rationalize their decisions that way. That doesn’t acquit [BP company men Don] Vidrine or [Robert] Kaluza. They were 20-, 30-year guys too.
But because the company VIPs were on the rig they were distracted and you had a short change of tour [a new shift came on several hours earlier as part of change in schedule] just when they started the tests. So you had a new tool pusher, driller, assistant driller.
Money and cutting costs came into consideration with well design in Houston, but not necessarily with the guys on the rig. I think they were desperate to get off that well, and were more likely to shave corners to save times. Displacing the riser early was them trying to combine steps and I think it blinded them to what the well was telling them.
The book includes details about a number of other close calls in the offshore drilling business that I think many of us haven’t heard about before. Why did you include that?
We think we’re on top of all this stuff, but the margin of error is razor thin.
One of the things I write about is because we’ve been so successful and done such marvelous things offshore in extreme conditions, we tend to get over confident and complacent.
You have a chapter about what you call the BP-government merger. Explain that.
Sometime about August, Admiral Thad Allen was asked where the idea came from for the static kill and well integrity test, and he said something like he wasn’t sure, that they all worked to closely together it could have come up around the coffee pot.
So what I did was I backed up and started listening to the rhetoric from the administration in early May. The language from [Rep. Ed] Markey, [Sec. of the Interior Ken] Salazar and President Obama got sharper and sharper until June 16, when BP came to the White House and agreed to the $20 billion escrow fund.
Instantly the rhetoric changed and softened. There were a couple of times where there was clear disagreement over some issues, but it became very much one message, with BP stepping back to the background.
Do you think the government was colluding with BP to downplay the size of the spill early on with what are now clearly ridiculously low flow estimates?
I think the government was operating on very poor information. Just after the rig sank, BP told the Coast Guard the oil had stopped flowing, but at the very moment Admiral Landry was on TV saying that BP had ROVs on the bottom of the ocean trying desperately to get the BOP shut.
Do you think the government lied about how much oil was left in the Gulf once the well was shut in?
I think NOAA did obfuscate the information. They wanted that New York Times headline that said “most of the oil is gone” and they got it, although if you ready the report itself it didn’t really say that.
You’re an industry insider but you’re tough on the industry in the book. Was it the Deepwater Horizon incident that led to this view?
It was a couple of things over the years. I’ve been in the business for 30 years. Early on in my career I was injured in a pit fire. I’ve had crewmen injured or killed.
Also in my early days I watched oil and gas operators taking fresh water reservoirs and pumping them into waterfloods and open pits. So I started to get a view on how the industry should operate more responsibly. As I’ve risen in the ranks over the years I’ve tried to act on that.
The oil and gas industry is its own worst enemy. We tend to treat the public as ignorant and think PR and “public education” campaigns are sufficient, when in fact we have lobbyists full-time fighting everything that makes the industry safer or cleaner.
I don’t think the people in the industry are bad people, but we set up an environment of opposition. We need to turn down the volume a bit. It’s easy to see why people call us “Big Oil:” because we act like it.
Read the original article on the FuelFix blog.