Oil Spill Hearings: BP's Actions Before Disaster Look Problematic

oil spill
oil spill

There are eight ongoing investigations into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, one of which is by the Marine Board of Investigation, a joint effort of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has provided thorough coverage of the investigation's hearings, which continued today with a sixth day of testimony.

So far, BP (BP), the oil company behind the Deepwater Horizon oil exploration, has come out looking particularly horrible, though no one has emerged looking terrific. Below is a round-up of issues raised in the hearings, with a quick summary at the end of this article.

Bigwigs Were Aboard on Day of Disaster

Ironically, on the day of the explosion, VIP executives from BP and Transocean were on board to celebrate the rig's safety record. At the time of the explosion, most were on the bridge. At least one was seriously hurt by the explosion, according to Friday's moving testimony by Mike Ezell of Transocean. Ezell helped excavate the Transocean executive from rubble.

Problems Throughout the Well's Final Days

Mark Hafle, a BP drilling engineer who wrote plans for Deepwater Horizon's well casings and cement, testified that he made "several changes to the casing designs in the [rig's] last few days" to address problems with the well's walls and leaking drilling mud. One of the MMS panel members challenged his designs, suggesting that the casing size "set up [the] Halliburton cementer for failure." Hafle rejected the idea that the design was flawed and said modeling had supported the approach. Jimmy Harrell, Transocean's (RIG) top drilling official on the well, noted that BP was "constantly changing" the well plan.

Tests Done and Not Done

On the day of the explosion, BP and Transocean argued over whether or not to perform a negative-pressure test on the well, with Transocean ultimately persuading BP to do the test. What test results emerged is not 100% clear. The testimony generally agrees that the first test was considered a failure, which suggested problems with the cement lining the well.

The testimony conflicts about whether the second test, done after making some adjustments, was successful. The second test returned 15 barrels of mud, although ideally none should have come back. Some crew members testified about ongoing concerns with the second test result, but both BP's Hafle and Jimmy Harrell, Transocean's top drilling official on the well, testified that the results were fine.

However the second test result is characterized, the first should have triggered the performance of a cement bond log, a test considered the "gold standard" to determine the integrity of cement in such situations. Last month a top executive for Halliburton (HAL), the cement contractor on the rig, told Congress that a cement bond log should be done whenever a pressure test fails. BP had a team on site on the rig's last day that could have done a cement bond log test, but the team was sent home before either pressure test was performed.

Regardless of whether or not the second test was successful, the well was experiencing pressure problems as late as 20 minutes before the explosion, according to Transocean Chief Mate David Young. He testified that 20 minutes before the explosion he went to ask two senior drillers when cement would be needed and found them discussing problematic readings. They explained they had to figure out the readings before the cement meeting. Young didn't ask them more questions, and sadly both drillers were killed in the explosion.

Experimental Cement

According to Doug Brown, the Chief Mechanic of the Deepwater Horizon, on the day of the accident, Transocean's Harrell was arguing with BP over procedures and after being overruled by BP, said, "Well, I guess that's what we have those pinchers for," referring to the blowout preventer's shear rams, devices designed to slice through the drill pipe and close off the well to prevent catastrophe.

Harrell explained his comment, if he had made it, would refer to the chance that the nitrogen-infused cement BP decided to use to reinforce the well could cause problems. (Nitrogen-infused cement is supposed to bond faster and prevent the drilling slurry from getting into the rock formation.) Harrell testified that the cement was a relatively new Halliburton product, and he had heard it caused problems at other rigs. The Deepwater Horizon had never used cement with nitrogen in it at great depth before. Testimony Friday confirmed that the nitrogen cement was used in the deepest part of the well.

BP Gets Sick and Takes the Fifth

Most of the testimony to date has come from Transocean and some from Halliburton. Three scheduled BP witnesses declined to testify. Two cited illness and one, Robert Koluza, a top BP official on the rig, refused to testify, citing his constitutional right not to incriminate himself. Koluza said through his lawyer that he "did no wrong on the Deepwater Horizon, and we will make damn sure that this comes out at the appropriate time."

Spill May Have Been Preventable

The failure of the blowout preventer is perhaps the proximate cause of the accident -- if it had worked the spill shouldn't have happened. What testimony from these hearings suggests is that perhaps the blowout preventer would have worked if it had been triggered when the well-pressure problems were noted, instead of after the explosion. The explosions appear to have damaged the equipment.

Would a reasonable person have triggered the blowout preventer before the explosion, such that failing to do so was a failure by those on the rig? I've no idea. But I sure wish someone had.

Rushing to Finish the Well

BP was in a hurry to finish the well. It was six weeks and about $22 million behind schedule at the time of the accident. Although Harrell, Transocean's top drilling official on the rig, rejected suggestions that pressure to speed up was impacting safety, Brown, the Chief Mechanic of the Deepwater Horizon, testified that crew members told him the well was taking too long and BP was in a hurry to finish it.

In sum, the testimony so far shows:

  • BP's engineer struggling to address problems in the days leading up to the explosion.

  • On the day of the explosion, BP had to be persuaded to do tests that suggest issues with the well's cement.

  • BP sent home a crew that could do a definitive test on the cement without performing the assessment.

  • BP apparently insisted on using nitrogen-infused cement at a depth the rig hadn't ever used it before, over Transocean's objection.

  • BP executives have refused to testify.

  • This is all set against the backdrop of BP rushing to finish the well.

The hearings will take a break after today and resume in July. A specific date has not been set.