Oil FAIL: Did BP fail to run the test that would have shown the well was faulty? Why?
From an editorial in the Times Picayune:
In the most recent revelation, Times-Picayune reporter David Hammer found that BP chose to forgo a crucial test of the cement linings in the Deepwater Horizon's well. The contractor who was hired to perform the cement bond log [CBL] test said BP officials sent the workers home without conducting it. [And the well blew hours after the workers left the rig. See below. --lambert] The test, which checks the strength of cement protecting the well's metal casing, could have revealed problems with the job, according to congressional testimony by a Halliburton executive.
In addition, schematics of the cementing design provided to Congress by contractor Halliburton are missing a key seal* between two sections of metal casing. Experts said that would be a design flaw that would allow natural gas to blast into the well undetected and cause the rig's explosion.
The test that BP chose not to conduct could have revealed that flaw.
BP executives have conceded that the company is responsible for the oil spill and for paying the costs of its clean-up. But in news interviews and in congressional hearings, BP officials have repeatedly said the operation and safety of the rig was the responsibility of its main contractor and rig owner, Transocean.
But it was BP officials who decided not to conduct the final test on the cement job. BP also decided to prematurely begin removing the drilling mud that kept downward pressure on the well, investigators have found.
These findings suggest the company may have been trying to rush the capping of the well, in ways that helped precipitate the disaster.
So why'd they rush it? Did the execs who were partying on the rig when it blew have a late dinner engagement on shore?
There seem to be two reports of what went down on the rig that day regarding the cement bond test. First, from the Online Wall Street Journal, on May 15:
About 11 hours before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, a disagreement took place between the top manager for oil giant BP PLC on the drilling rig and his counterpart for the rig's owner, Transocean Ltd., concerning the final steps in shutting down the nearly completed well, according to a worker's sworn statement.
Michael Williams, a Transocean employee who was chief electronics technician on the rig, said there was "confusion" between those high-ranking officials in an 11 a.m. meeting on the day of the rig blast, according to a sworn statement from Mr. Williams reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Williams himself attended the meeting.
The confusion over the drilling plan in the final hours leading up to the explosion could be key to understanding the causes of the blowout and ultimately who was responsible.
What is known from drilling records [which oddly, or not, are missing] and congressional testimony is that after the morning meeting, the crew began preparations to remove from the drill pipe heavy drilling "mud" that provides pressure to keep down any gas, and to replace this mud with lighter seawater.
Ultimately, the crew removed the mud before setting a final 300-foot cement plug that is typically poured as a last safeguard to prevent combustible gas from rising to the surface. Indeed, they never got the opportunity to set the plug.
Mr. Williams declined to be interviewed.
In his sworn statement, he described the meeting as including ranking personnel from BP, Transocean and Halliburton Co., a contractor that dealt with cementing the well.
According to Mr. Williams's account, Transocean's rig manager, Jimmy Wayne Harrell, was discussing the plans for the next few hours' work, including taking out the drilling mud and running a test to make sure gas wasn't seeping into the well. Mr. Harrell explained in the meeting that he had received the plans from BP.
Then, according to Mr. Williams's statement, the top-ranked BP employee assigned to the rig, Donald Vidrine, disagreed and said "that was not the correct procedure." ...
At about this point in the meeting, according to Mr. Williams's attorney, Scott Bickford, all other employees were asked to leave the room so that Messrs. Vidrine and Harrell could talk in private. Mr. Williams's statement doesn't include a reference to asking others to leave.
It's not clear what position either BP's Mr. Vidrine or Transocean's Mr. Harrell took on when the drilling mud should be removed. [Transocean's] Mr. Williams's statement said only that the disagreement concerned taking out the mud, running a "negative pressure" test on the well, and dealing with a piece of equipment called a seal assembly.
It also isn't clear whether Mr. Vidrine or Mr. Harrell won the day.
Typically well owner BP would have final say, since it was paying roughly $1 million a day to lease the rig and pay for services from 12 companies that had people on the rig.
What is clear is that workers soon began displacing the mud. Later that afternoon a pressure test provided ambiguous readings, a possible sign of gas seeping in, according to what Rep. Henry Waxman says a BP executive told House investigators. Eventually, in the evening, after further tests, BP made a decision to carry forth in removing more drilling mud. The rig blew about 10 p.m.
And a second, more vivid report, from the Oil Drum, in comments, labelled "with appropriate caveats", on May 14:
BP contracted Schlumberger (SLB) [one of the 12 companies that had people on the rig] to run the Cement Bond Log (CBL) test that was the final test on the plug that was skipped. The people testifying have been very coy about mentioning this, and you'll see why.
SLB is an extremely highly regarded (and incredibly expensive) service company. They place a high standard on safety and train their workers to shut down unsafe operations.
SLB gets out to the Deepwater Horizon to run the CBL, and they find the well still kicking heavily, which it should not be that late in the operation. SLB orders the "company man" (BP's man on the scene that runs the operation) to dump kill fluid down the well and shut-in the well. The company man refuses. SLB in the very next sentence asks for a helo to take all SLB personel back to shore. The company man says there are no more helo's scheduled for the rest of the week (translation: you're here to do a job, now do it). SLB gets on the horn to shore, calls SLB's corporate HQ, and gets a helo flown out there at SLB's expense and takes all SLB personel to shore.
6 hours later, the platform explodes.
Pick your jaw up off the floor now. No CBL was run after the pressure tests because the contractor high-tailed it out of there. If this story is true, the company man (who survived) should go to jail for 11 counts of negligent homicide.
NOTE * Now, this disaster is not only like Katrina (geographically) and Chernyobl (institutionally), but like the Challenger disaster: technically. If this report is correct, the well failed because the seals between casing segments were faulty, just as the Challenger blew up because the seals between its booster rocket stages were faulty:
Gregory McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, called the cement bond log the "gold standard" of cement tests. It records detailed, 360-degree representations of the well and can show where the cement isn't adhering fully to the casing and where there may be paths for gas or oil to get into the hole.
With each section, one metal tube fits inside another, leaving a space called an "annulus" where heavy drilling mud can circulate and carry the drilled-out material back up to the surface. According to the diagram, one of the spaces between different-sized pipes was not closed off -- a no-no, according to some experts.
[McCormack] isn't so sure that the blowout went through the annulus, rather than breaching the center of the well and blowing out the top. But either way, he was baffled by the diagram Halliburton gave to Congress. He was so surprised by the lack of an O-ring seal that he wondered if it was an error.
"There's a free path all the way to the top of the well bore. Normally you wouldn't do that," he said. "If the well was completed as designed, I think that would be an issue the way it's shown there."
Assuming the schematics are correct. Of course, because BP is incredibly sloppy about record keeping, we may never know whether the well as built has any relation to the well as designed.
I remember the famous hearings into the Challenger disaster, when physicist Richard Feynman dunked a chunk of O-ring into cold water to demonstrate how the FAIL had happened; NASA had launched in weather that was so cold that it made the O-rings brittle, so they failed, so the booster blew up, and seven astronauts died.
Sadly, it's unlikely that we'd hold the Challenger hearings today. That would imply that corporations and CEOs could be held accountable, when of course they have impunity for any crimes they commit.