Learning (the right lessons, hopefully) from the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Also, a transcript of an radio call in of an eyewitness account (provided by geologist Jimmy Haigh) follows this article.
Guest post by Paul Driessen
Transocean’s semi-submersible drilling vessel Deepwater Horizon was finishing work on a wellbore that had found oil 18,000 feet beneath the seafloor, in mile-deep water fifty miles off the Louisiana coast. Supervisors in the control cabin overlooking the drilling operations area were directing routine procedures to cement, plug and seal the borehole, replace heavy drilling fluids with seawater and extract the drill stem and bit through the riser (outer containment pipe) that connected the vessel to the blowout preventer (BOP) on the seafloor.
Suddenly, a thump and hiss were followed by a towering eruption of seawater, drilling mud, cement, oil and natural gas. The BOP and backup systems had failed to work as designed, to control the massive amounts of unexpectedly high-pressure gas that were roaring up 23,000 feet of wellbore and riser.
Gas enveloped the area and ignited, engulfing the Horizon in a 500-foot high inferno that instantly killed eleven workers. Surviving crewmen abandoned ship in covered lifeboats or jumped 80 feet to the water.
The supply boat Tidewater Damon Bankston rushed to the scene and helped crewmen get their burned and injured colleagues aboard. Shore-based Coast Guard helicopters tore through the night sky to brave the flames and take critically injured men to hospitals.
Thirty-six hours later, the Deepwater Horizon capsized and sank, buckling the 21-inch diameter riser and breaking it off at the rig deck. Three leaks began spewing some 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of crude oil per day into the ocean. As the oil gathered on the surface and drifted toward shore, it threatened a major ecological disaster for estuaries, marine life and all who depend on them for their livelihoods.
Thankfully, after getting rough for a couple days, the seas calmed. Industry, Coast Guard, NOAA and Minerals Management Service (MMS) crews and volunteer from Louisiana to Alaska had some time to recalculate the spill’s trajectory, deploy oil skimmer boats and miles of containment booms, and burn some of the oil off the sea surface. They lowered ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) to cap the end of the riser and spray chemicals that break down and disperse the oil.
Aircraft sprayed more dispersants over floating oil, and technicians hurried to build and deploy heavy cofferdams specially designed to sit atop the broken riser and BOP stack, collect the leaking oil and pipe it up to tanker barges. Drill ships are heading to the scene, to drill relief wells, intersect the original hole, cement it shut and permanently stop the leak. ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips and many other companies have offered BP, Transocean and Halliburton assistance on all these fronts.
How bad will the disaster be? Much depends on how long the calm weather lasts, how quickly the cofferdams can be installed, and how successful the entire effort is. There is some cause for optimism – and much need for prayer, crossed fingers and hard work.
But it will take weeks to years of uncontrolled leakage, before this spill comes close to previous highs, such as the:
* Santa Barbara Channel oil platform blowout (1969): 90,000 barrels off the California coast;
* Mega Borg tanker (1990): 121,400 barrels in the Gulf of Mexico off Galveston, TX;
* Exxon Valdez tanker (1989): 250,000 barrels along 1,300 miles of untouched Alaska shoreline;
* Ixtoc 1 oil platform blowout (1979): 3,500,000 barrels in Mexico’s Campeche Bay;
* Saddam Hussein oil field sabotage (1991): 857,000,000 barrels in Kuwait;
* Natural seeps in US waters: 1,119,000 barrels every year from natural cracks in the seafloor.
Cold water and climate meant Alaska’s Prince William Sound recovery was slow; Campeche beaches and coastal waters largely rebounded much more rapidly. Mississippi River flows through the warm Delta region may help keep some oil from pushing too far into the estuaries and speed recovery of oyster, shrimp and fishing areas, as it did with spills during pre-1960 drilling. Prayers and crossed fingers again.
Should we stop drilling offshore? We can hardly afford to. We still need to drill, so that we can drive, fly, farm, heat our homes, operate factories and do everything else that requires reliable, affordable petroleum. Indeed, over 62% of all US energy still comes from oil and gas. And we certainly need the jobs and revenues that US offshore energy development generates.
We’ve already banned drilling in ANWR, off the Florida, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and in many other areas. We’ve made it nearly impossible to mine coal or uranium, or build new coal-fired power plants or nuclear reactors. We’ve largely forced companies to drill in deep Gulf waters, where risks and costs are far higher, and the ability to respond quickly and effectively to accidents is lower.
We’ve also forced companies to take drilling risks to foreign nations – and then increased the risks of tanker accidents that cause far greater spillage when they bring that oil to America. Meanwhile, Russia, China and Cuba are preparing to drill near the same Gulf and Caribbean waters that we’ve made off limits – employing their training, technologies, regulations and ecological philosophies.
Even with this blowout and its 1969 Santa Barbara predecessor, America’s offshore record is excellent. Since 1969, we have drilled over 1,224,00 wells in state waters and on the Outer Continental Shelf. There have been 13 losses of well control involving more than 50 barrels: five were less than 100 barrels apiece; one was a little over 1,000 barrels; two (both in 1970) involved 30,000 barrels or more. Only in Santa Barbara (so far) did significant amounts of oil reach shore and cause serious environmental damage.
Globally, tankers have spilled four times more oil than drilling and production operations, often in much bigger mishaps, often in fragile areas – and chronic discharges from cars and boats dwarf tanker spills by a factor of eight. (All spill data are from the MMS and National Research Council.)
What should we do next? Recognize that life, technology and civilization involve risks. Humans make mistakes. Equipment fails. Nature presents us with extreme, unprecedented, unexpected power and fury.
Learn the right lessons from this tragic, catastrophic, probably preventable accident. Avoid grandstanding and kneejerk reactions. Replace people’s lost income. Insist on responsible, adult thinking – and a thorough, expert, non-politicized investigation. Find solutions instead of assigning blame.
Why did the BOP and backups fail? What went wrong with the cement, plugs and pressure detection devices, supervisor and crew monitoring and reactions, to set off the catastrophic chain of events? How can we improve the technology and training, to make sure such a disaster never happens again? Did the regulators fail, too? How can we improve oil spill cleanup technologies and rapid response?
Ask what realistic alternatives we have. Not “Sim USA” and virtual energy. Real energy.
Can we afford to shut down our domestic oil and gas industry – economically, ecologically and ethically – and import more, as we export risks to other countries, and shift risks from drilling accidents to tanker accidents? Can we afford to replace dozens of offshore rigs with thousands of towering offshore wind turbines, creating obstacle courses for ships laden with bunker fuel or crude oil?
Drilling in deep waters far from shore is a complex, difficult, dangerous business. Let us remember and pray for the eleven who died, those who were burned and injured, and their families and loved ones. Let us also pray for all who daily risk life and limb, to bring us the energy that makes our lives, jobs and living standards possible – and for all whose lives have been affected by the spill.
[To learn more about offshore drilling and production and this accident, visit the NOAA emergency response page, Open Choke Deepwater Horizon spill page, and Drilling Ahead oil professionals network.]
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow.
ADDENDUM: This is a radio transcript done by Jimmy Haigh, of a caller to the Mark Levin Radio Show, who was an eyewitness. Levin independently corroborated the identity of the caller (off-air) and thus this represents an eyewitness account.
Here is the URL of the radio interview:
ML: James, Dallas, Texas. WBAP – go right ahead.
James: I just wanted to clear up a few things with the Petroleum Engineer. Everything he said was correct, I was actually on the rig when it exploded, I was at work, we just…
ML: Slow down, hold on a moment, so, you were working on this rig, when it exploded?
James: Yes Sir.
ML: Okay, go ahead.
James: We had set the bottom cement plug for the inner casing string which was a production liner for the well and had set what’s called a seal assembly in the top of the well. At that point the BOP stack you’ve been talking about, the Blow Out Preventor, was tested. Ah, don’t know the results of that tes, whatever, it must have passed because at that point they elected to displace the riser, the marine riser, from the vessel to the sea floor they displaced all the mud out of the riser preparing to unlatch from the well two days later so they displace it with sea water. Ah, when they concluded the tests to the BOP stack and the inner liner they concluded everything was good..
ML: Okay, let me slow you down, let me slow you down. So they do all these tests to makesure that the infrastructure can handle what’s about to happen?
James: Correct. We’re testing the negative pressure and positive pressure of the well, the casing and the actual marine riser.
ML: Okay. I’m with you. Go ahead.
James: So after the conclusion of the test they simply opened the BOP stack back up.…
ML: And the test, as best as you know, was sufficient?
James: It should have been, yes Sir, they would have never opened it back up.
ML: Okay. Next step? Go ahead.
James: Next step they opened the annular, ah, the upper part of the BOP stack…
ML: Which has as its purpose? Why do you do that?
James: So that you can gain access back to the wellbore. You close the stack, that’s basically a humungous hydraulic valve that is closing off everything from below and above. It’s like a gate valve on the sea floor. That’s a very simplistic way of explaining a BOP, it’s a very complicated piece of equipment.
ML: Basically it’s a plug. Go ahead.
James: Correct. Basically Once they opened that plug to go ahead and start cementing the top of the well, the well bore, they cement the top and then we would pull off, another rig would slot over and do the rest of the completion work. When they opened the well is when the gas, the well kicked and we took a humungous gas bubble kick up through the wellbore. It literally pushed the seawater all the way to the crown of the rig which is about 240 feet in the air.
ML: Okay. So gas got into it and blew the top off. Now, don’t hang up. I want to continue with you because I want to ask you some questions for later OK? Including, including, has this sort of thing ever happened before? And why you think it may have happened. OK?
I’m back with “James”. That’s not his real name, Dallas WBAP. I’m not going to give the working title of what you did there either but I wanted to finish. So, the gentleman was right about the point that, obviously, some gas got into the – I’ll call it the funnel, OK?
James: Correct. And that’s not uncommon, Mark. Any time you’re drilling an oil well there’s a constant battle between what the mud weight, the drilling fluid that we use to maintain pressure on the wellbore itself, there’s a balance of the well pushing gas the one way and you’re pushing mud the other way. There’s a delicate balance has to be maintained at all times for keeping the gas from coming back in, in these what we call ‘kicks’, ah, we always get gas back in the mud, ah, but the goal of the whole situation is to try to control the kick and not allow the pressure differential between the vessel and the wellbore.
ML: But in this case obviously too much gas got in.
James: Correct. This well had not a bad history of producing lots of gas, ah, it was touch and go, you know, a few times, but it’s not terribly uncommon. You’re almost always going to get gas back from a well. We have systems to deal with the gas.
ML: So what may have happened here?
James: Well the volume, the sheer volume and pressure of gas that hit all at once was more than the safety, the controls we had in place could handle.
ML: And that’s not, I mean, is that like a mistake on somebody’s part? Or maybe it’s just Mother Nature every now and then kicks up or what?
James: Mother Nature every now and then kicks up and the pressures that we’re dealing with out there within the .., drilling deeper and deeper, you know, in deeper water, deeper overall volume, of the hole depth itself , you you’re dealing with 30 to 40 thousand pounds per square inch range. They’re serious pressures.
ML: By the way, we just verified – not to offend you – we just verified that you are who you are, which I’m sure that you already knew. I would like to hold you over to the next hour because I want to ask a few more questions about this as well as what exactly happened just after the explosion. Can you wait with us?
James: Sure. I don’t know how much of that I can share but I’ll do my best.
ML: All right, I don’t want to get you in trouble, so to the extent you can – fine, to the extent you can’t, we understand.
ML: 877388 381. We’re talking to a caller who, under an assumed name, who was on the rig when it blew up. We were talking about how it happened And now, James, I want to take you to the point when it happened. What exactly happened? … You were standing where?
James: Ah, well, obviously the gas blew the seawater out of the riser. Once it displaced all the seawater out the gas began to spill out on the deck up through the centre of the rig floor . The rig, you have to imagine a rectangle about 400 feet by 300 feet, with the derrick, the rig floor, set directly in the centre. Ah, as this gas is now heavier than air it starts to settle into different places, ah, from that point something ignited the gas which would have caused the first major explosion.
ML: Now what might ignite the gas?
James: Any number of things, Mark, ah, all rig floor equipment is what they consider intrinsically safe meaning it can not create a spark, that these type of accidents can not occur. However with as much gas that came out as fast as it did it would have spilled over the entire rig fairly rapidly within a minute of, I would think the entire rig would be enveloped in gas, a lot of this stuff, you can’t smell it, you can’t taste it, ah it’s just there., and it’s heavier than oxygen. As it settled in, ah, it could have made it to a space that wasn’t intrinsically safe. Something as simple as static electricity could have ignited the first explosion which set off of course a series of explosions.
ML: Right, so, so, so what happened? You’re standing where? You’re sitting somewhere? What happened?
James: Well, I was in a location that was a pretty good way from the initial blast. Ah, wasn’t affected by the blast, I was able to make it out and get up forward where the lifeboats, the PA system was still working, ah, there was an announcement overhead to, ah, that this was not a drill. Obviously we have fire drills every single week to prepare for emergencies like this, fire and abandonment drills, and over the intercom came the order to report to the lifeboats 1 and 2, that this was not a drill, that there is a fire, and, ah, we proceeded that way.
ML: So, the 11 men who died. Were they friends of yours?
James: Yes Sir, they were.
ML: Did they die instantly?
James: Ah, I would have to assume so, yes Sir. I would think they were directly inside the bomb when it went off.
ML: How did you get off there?
James: The bomb – the gas being the bomb.
ML: OK, so the bomb being the gas explosion.
James: Correct. Correct. They would have been in the belly of the beast.
ML: Let me ask, and we have to be careful of what we say, people will run wild with ideas. I just want to make sure.
ML: Let me ask you this. Why would the government send in a SWOT team? What’s that all about?
James: Believe it or not, that’s… funny you should mention that, Transocean maintains a SWOT team, ah, the drilling company, that, their sole purpose, they’re experts in their field, the BOP, the Blow Out Preventer, ah, they call that sub-sea equipment, they have their own SWOT team that they send out to the rigs to service and maintain that equipment …
ML: I’m talking about a … What are interior SWOT teams? What does that mean?
James: The interior? From the government? Now, I don’t have any idea. That’s beyond me. And the other gentleman also mentioned the USGS that comes out and does the surveys, I’ve been on that particular rig, ah, for 3 years, offshore for 5 years, and I’ve seen the USGS one time. What we do have, on a very regular basis, is the MMS, which is the Minerals Management Service…
ML: They’re all under the interior department..
James: OK. Ah, as a matter of fact, we were commended, for our inspection record from the MMS, we actually received an award from them for the highest level of safety and environmental awareness.
ML: Well, I thought you were going to receive that award. Did they put it on hold?
James: No, we have actually received that award, we received it last year, we may have been ready to receive it again this year.
ML: Let me ask you this. You say lifeboats. So how did you get on this lifeboat? Where are these lifeboats?
James: Ah, there’s actually 4 lifeboats, 2 forward and 2 aft, ah, depending on where the emergency actually takes place.
ML: I mean, did you actually end up jumping in the water to get on to the lifeboat? Sometimes you have to do that?
James: Ah, I’ll just say that there were 5 to 7 individuals that jumped and the rest went down in lifeboats.
ML: All right. I won’t ask because you don’t want to identify yourself that clearly, good point. How fast…were rescue efforts. How fast did they reach you?
James: Ah, well it was, ah, it’s common to have a very large workboat standing by, bringing tools out, bringing groceries, bringing supplies, it’s a constant turnaround, so we actually had a very large vessel real close by, he was actually alongside with a hose attached taking mud off of our vessel on to his own, and then had to disconnect – in the emergency he disconnected and pulled out about a mile to standby for rescue efforts. So it was, it was fairly quick.
ML: How quick until the coastguard arrived?
James: Mark, it’s hard to say. Between 45 minutes to maybe an hour, when I recall seeing the first helicopter.
ML: Which was actually pretty fast because you are 130 miles offshore, right?
James: Correct. We are.. if you look at the nearest bit of land, which would be Grand Isle, Loiusiana, somewhere in that area, we were only about maybe 50 miles as the crow flies, from civilization, such as New Orleans, it would be 200 miles. A flight by helicopter was more than likely 80 to 100 miles away.
ML: You’re going to be beset by lawyers, with the government, ah, others looking for an opportunity to make money, it’s going to get very very ugly, and ah, officials are going with no background and experience, ah, climate change and so forth, to what extent is that gonna help out?
James: Yeah, that’s, to me, this seems all knee jerk, ah, the number one focus right now is to be containment, I like the idea of the boom they’re going to try to lower into the water to capture the leak, ah…
ML: How long might that take? I’ve been reading about this boom, it could take 30 days.
James: It very well could, you got to remember the challenging environment they’re in there, it’s 5000 feet deep, there’s a tangled wreck of a rig with all that marine riser still connected and twisted up into a big wad down there and its going to take some time to get all that stuff in place. The engineering has to be there, you obviously don’t want to rush into it, you want to move expediently but, ah, you’re risking the lives of those men that are going to go out there and try to attempt this.
ML: I was just going to say that. That’s very dangerous. Extremely dangerous.
James: Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s gonna be oil. There’s gonna be natural gas, all the same things that caused us to explode are still present, they’re there. The pressure has been cut off dramatically from the simple fact of the folding of the riser, it has, basically, took a pretty good guard hose and kinked it over several times.
ML: How old is this rig? How long has it been..
James: It was put in service in 2001. It’s a fairly new rig.
ML: And, ah, what is the sense of shutting down every rig in the Gulf of Mexico in response to this?
James: Absolutely no sense whatsoever. It was a… literally could very well be a once in a lifetime freak accident, or it could be negligence, that’s for other people to figure out but… From my position, it just seems like, every now and then, you can’t win against Mother Nature. It’s her fault that you’re not prepared for.
ML: But to shut down every rig, I mean, in response to this? I’m not sure why that would be ..
James: These BOP tests are literally mandated from the Mineral Management Service and they’re conducted like clockwork. I mean, if one of those tests ever failed they would immediately stop the operation, seal the well up up, pull the BOP stack back on the deck, which is 48 hours minimum, and make the necessary repairs or replacement parts and then go back down, reconnect, retest, and keep testing until it passes or keep repairing it until it passes.
ML: So this was , ah, let me, this must have been incredibly harrowing for you to experience something like this.
James: Ah, that’s putting it mildly. Very mildly.
ML: Anything else you want to tell me?
James: No I just. I got in the truck to make a short trip and, ah, I heard the gentleman say something about possible terrorism, I just wanted to put all that to bed now, ah, I understand your audience, you have a large audience, I appreciate your point of view, I try to listen to you as much as I can, it’s just,.. terrorism and all that needs to leave everyone’s minds, and let’s focus on the 11 men that are dead and the survivors, that’s what needs…, that’s where the focus for this country needs to be right now.
ML: All right my friend, well, look, we wish you all the best, and I tell you, it’s really God’s blessing that you survived.
James: Yes Sir, I completely agree.
ML: All right James, well thank you very much for calling. We appreciate it.
James: Thank you Mark.
ML: God bless.