Back Pedalling over BP

Further to this post we get an unsurprising admission:

The Obama administration is facing a rising tide of anger against its handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and acknowledged on Sunday that it did not have the technical capabilities to step in and fix the gusher on its own.

That would be the same day you threatened to kick BP off the job, then.  Good to see everyone is keeping a cool head in this time of crisis.

Besides, I’m not so sure what the administration is so worried about.  So the public are angry.  Angry at whom?  For once, I’m confident in saying that it is not the government’s fault that there was a well blowout at the Macondo prospect and stemming the flow is proving to be a technical nightmare.  They need to get up there and say so, not sound off like some tough guy and backtrack the same day.  That’s not helping anyone.

Still, the childlike faith some people have in the omnipotency of government is almost touching.  Did they learn nothing from Katrina?


19 thoughts on “Back Pedalling over BP

  1. Tim, I’ve been reading your comments and questions with great interest, since you know what you are talking about and most people don’t have a clue. I agree that BP is really doing everything it can to stop the gushing and clean up. I’m not outraged that BP tried to put a somewhat more positive spin on it at first (that’s normal human and corporate behavior). I also understand that sh*t happens in every sphere — a series of mistakes/faulty mechanisms that cause a disaster that seemed like “it couldn’t happen.” That’s human nature, too, or rather the nature of disasters.

    What I don’t understand: it seems (preliminarily) that the BOP was faulty and they knew it. I can’t understand why they took the risk to keep working. Can you explain that?

  2. Mab, wow! I didn’t know you read my blog never mind liked it … I’m, well, honoured. Hopefully you like the Russian stuff I write about too. 🙂

    If – and let’s just call it if for now – BP knew the BOP was faulty and they gave the instruction to proceed regardless then they have ballsed up big time.

    Why would they do it? Easy: cost and time pressures. It costs in the region of $250k per day to keep a drillship on location and “turning to the right”, and any delay in the oil and gas business quickly turns into a cost equivalent which looks like a telephone number after only a few hours. Whether in construction, drilling, maintenance, or production time is always serious money and schedule pressure is incredible. We are always told safety is the priority, but I’ve seen cost concerns trump safety on dozens of occasions. I expect somebody made a tough call to press on regardless and unfortunately got caught out.

    You’ll find that most accidents are either human error (normally during non-routine operations, such as maintenance) and the human error is normally somebody taking a short-cut somewhere when under considerable pressure to get a job finished in time. It’s one of the reasons why decision makers in the oil and gas business get paid a lot, and perversely why more than a few people who are paid to make a decision lack the courage to do so.

  3. Sure, I love reading about what’s going on out there on the other side of the country! Plus you know about stuff I don’t know about.

    To continue with “ifs”… IF what I’m reading is correct and BP and other rigs were allowed to monitor themselves in some regards, do you think that tougher regulations would make this kind of drilling safe? The thing is, 1) sh*t happens and 2) once the thing is built and operational, as you write, there is always going to be pressure to put production above every last safety measure. (And human beings being human beings, when you don’t have one safety measure in place and nothing happens for a month, or 6 months, or a year, you begin to think you don’t really need that safety measure after all.) When the possible result of that is the kind of Biblical disaster we now have, which BP and the other companies probably can’t clean up even if they pumped every last cent they have into it, it seems to me that ocean drilling is just too risky. I know about the other 35,000 rigs in the Gulf that are okay, but it just takes one, right?

  4. I can tell you the rising tide of anger here is moving from BP to Obama. He’s been seen as Nero on this one. He’s taken two vacations since this thing started and is taking another one this weekend. Yes this is BP’s fault but the government was expected to make it all better and they haven’t.

    Democrats in this country think all good flows from government. Therefore, whenever anything goes wrong government is expected to wave their magic wand and make it all better.

    The upside here is perhaps people will be a bit more skeptical of government in the future.

    (As for Katrina they could always blame that on Bush so it was OK. Now they’re confused because The One is President and he’s magical yet this continues.)

  5. One of the more offensive expressions in American English that I’ve learned from the web is “Chinese fire drill”. Not only is it an inaccurate stereotype – a friend who witnessed a crisis in Asia assured me that it wasn’t the Chinese she saw scurrying around like headless chickens, it was the Malays – but it seems pretty applicable to many Americans and their response to this crisis. Or, to be fair, it seems to apply to the sort of Americans who are leftish and who post or comment on blogs.

  6. I think the reality is really setting in on this one, and the reason for the outburst is that it’s obvious that BP is shooting in the dark trying to figure out how to fix this. It’s also painfully obvious that despite BP trying to paint themselves as deep water drilling experts, all of their safety and protection equipment was never tested in a deep water scenario, and they simply don’t know how to handle it when the cash cow goes tits up.

  7. Sorry Nick, I don’t agree. Perhaps the BOP on this well was not successfully tested, but it’s one hell of claim to make that none of their safety equipment has been tested under live conditions at all. I’m betting the BOP which actually failed passed a test in the same spot within the month prior to the accident.

    I also don’t agree that BP are shooting in the dark. They have tried several methods, all of which are extremely difficult. That’s not the same as their not having a clue what to do.

  8. The really tough thing about such deep drilling is that it takes the administration much longer to figure out how to place the blame on Bush.

  9. Nick:

    Its also painfully obvious that despite BP trying to paint themselves as deep water drilling experts, all of their safety and protection equipment was never tested in a deep water scenario.

    From the May 12 testimony of Steve Newman, CEO Transocean:

    Since the BOPs were still in place in this circumstance, they may have been activated during this event and may have restricted the flow to some extent. At this point, we cannot be certain. But we have no reason to believe that they were not operational they were jointly tested by BP and Transocean personnel as specified on April 10 and 17 and found to be functional.

    I would suggest that in the future you try to learn something about a subject before you opine on it. Here is the link for Energy & Commerce Committee Investigates Deepwater Horizon Rig Oil Spill. There are many documents, including testimony for informing your self on the subject. Mr. Newman has already linked to documents on this site.

    The Wall Street Journal has also had some good articles. Mr. Newman and I have had good exchanges of information on another thread on this website. Learn before you speak, please.

  10. Mab,

    Firstly, whereas this incident will almost certainly result in tougher regulations being called for, I am not sure that this is actually a regulatory failure. Somebody might have just ignored the regulations, for whatever reason, and adding more regulations isn’t going to solve that problem. And if this is a regulatory failure, chances are they need to be smarter, not tougher. I worked for a US risk consultancy for 6 years and the US approach to risk management seems to be much more of a box-ticking exercise than we have in Europe (and the rest of the world). Particularly when complying with OSHA regulations (not relevant to the Macondo well, I know) we found that often there is a comprehensive list of things to check after which your arse is well and truly covered even if there is a glaring mistake somewhere in how the regulation is applied to your particular scenario. In the UK and Europe they take a goal-based approach whereby you must demonstrate that the risks are as low as reasonably practical (ALARP). You can use any established method you like, but the UK HSE, the regulatory body, must be satisfied that the risks have been demonstrated to be ALARP. This allows people to use different techniques applicable to the job in hand and forces them to actually think about how they will manage the risk. We found this to be far more effective than going through a long checklist that somebody else has drawn up. So regulations probably need to get smarter, not tougher.

    Secondly, although the spill from this well is pretty damned serious, it won’t be the end of the world. The cleanup will be long and costly, but the environment will recover (the Exxon Valdiz spill confirmed that it is possible). Unfortunately, as gets brought up every time an oil tanker crashes and spills its cargo, the world cannot live without oil, and we are at the very least 50 years away from the point where we can. The consequences of a spill are severe, but the risks are worth taking simply because there is no viable alternative. Regardless of how emotive the pictures of the environmental damage are, everyone will still climb into their cars and pretend that the gas in the tank came from somewhere other than an oil well.

    And this:

    And human beings being human beings, when you dont have one safety measure in place and nothing happens for a month, or 6 months, or a year, you begin to think you dont really need that safety measure after all.

    You are absolutely correct: complacency is a killer in the oil and gas business, which is why the personal safety programmes (e.g. importance of wearing safety gear, wearing seat belts, etc.) are repeated over and over again but at the same time varied each time. This is more difficult to do with operational stuff, and sadly people do get killed doing something they have done a thousand times before. It is quite possible that the errors in the well pressures and the faults with the BOP were problems that had been encountered a hundred times before without incident. Under those circumstances it is tempting to just carry on without stopping the job.

  11. Tim, thanks. Very interesting about risk assessment and regulations.

    I know that nature (or I should write Nature) is pretty amazing in its recovery ability, but the loss of income from fishing and tourism is likely to be huge for, what, one or two decades? I also do understand everyone’s point about “we still need oil.” But I think the worst case scenario has to be a real criterion, if you can call it that, in risk assessment. I’m more or less convinced that nuclear energy plants can be made almost fail-proof, but I still think they should be placed in the middle of nowhere just in case that worst case scenario happens. It’s the same thing with some kinds of ocean drilling.

    That said, it looks like BP and the other contractors were playing with fire, or rather, ignoring obvious problems and cutting corners.

  12. It is interesting that this is not the first time that Macondo has become part of international consciousness. Today, the Macondo block is well-known for the disaster of the lost rig and oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

    Macondo was also the name of the fictional town in A Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Aos de Soledad), the most famous work of Gabriel Garca Mrquez, the Colombian winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature. Interesting that Garca Mrquez is well known for magical realism. One might say that the recent events in the Macondo block show that truth is stranger than fiction.

    (previous comment blocked for Wiki link, so link is taken out)

  13. Heh, I didn’t know that. 🙂

    Further to your recommendation of the WSJ article earlier, they have another good one here which seems to be the most comprehensive account of what happened before the incident to appear in the mainstream press. The WSJ seems to be leading the pack in this story.


    Finally, a BP manager overseeing final well tests apparently had scant experience in deep-water drilling. He told investigators he was on the rig to “learn about deep water,” according to notes of an interview with him seen by the Journal.

    Oh, boy. How many times have I seen that from an oil company? I just hope the poor sod doesn’t get hung out to dry over this.

  14. Gringo – and by weird coincidence, I have just sited Macondo-the-dreamy-city-of-Marquez’-imagination in a post about someone’s photos few days ago.
    I haven’t thought about the book or its images for years – and then something, suddenly, stirred the picture in my mind.

    One of the best books ever, regardless of political views of the author.

    [there is nothing, besides the name, to tie that town with the oil-spill story. Not even the atmosphere of fatalism and inertia…]

  15. Mr. Newman: you might do something to adjust your spam filters, as not only have my comments not gone through, one comment that had previously gone through got deleted( comment about Macondo of Hundred Years of Solitude).

    My comments were on topic. Must have been because of link(s). Oh well.

  16. Comments get eaten by spam filter, including one that had already been posted ( my comment on double Macondo: Garcia Marquez +BP). Gringo

  17. Yeah, I’m sorry about the spam filter. It’s been the bane of this blog for years whenever a topic gets popular, but I need to keep it in place to stop the thousands of spam I get per week. I monitor the comments a few times per day, so if a comment doesn’t appear straight away I will most likely get around to retrieving it manually after a few hours. But please keep commenting, I find your contributions most interesting.

  18. Tim, I will try reposting what the filter blocked yesterday. Just what I picked up from WSJ articles.The gist of it was that the WSJ had discussed a strong disagreement on the rig the day of the explosion. Several articles over several weeks, with several witnesses discussed the disagreement. Donald Vidrine, the BP company man (as you know, but other readers may not: top man) on the rig) and Jimmy Wayne Harrell (a.k.a. Jimmy W. Harrell), Transocean’s top man on the rig, were in disagreement. The Transocean tool pusher and top driller were also in disagreement with BP’s Vidrine.The driller was killed in the explosion.

    Also interesting that according to the WSJ, Vidrine cited an “undisclosed medical issue” for not being a witness on Thursday, just yesterday.

    Maybe I will leave my posting at this, for fear that if this goes through, and the filter blocks any subsequent posting, this posting will then get deleted. So that is what I will do. You can do an Advanced Google Search on the WSJ to pull up the articles to verify or correct what I am writing here.

    Robert Kaluza was the BP engineer who was on the rig to “learn about deepwater drilling.” He was in charge of the pressure testing the day of the explosion. Re your fear that BP will hang him out to dry: if anyone should be hung out to dry, it would appear to be Donald Vidrine. It may be that Vidrine was following orders from BP’s onshore management. Who knows at this stage? (the time saving and cost cutting measures, such as not circulating to bottoms up to check gas at the bottom of the well, came from top office pressure to keep the well on budget. Penny wise and pound foolish, a saying we Yanks kept from the home country.)

    BTW, the WSJ article you cited also mentioned the literary Macondo. I hadn’t read the article before you posted it, so the reporter and I came up with the connection independently of each other.


  19. The thought that humans make mistakes and this was bound to happen is simply so much bull shit.

    Having been involved in drilling I suggest the organization under which drilling is done increases the risk of an event.

    Firstly, the company man concept has potential to eliminate the benefit of virtually hundreds of years of knowledge and crucial advice. Responsibility for well control must be the owners.

    Secondly, the day contract under which the rig owner operates does everything but exonerate the operator from gross negligence. This has the effect to decrease responsibility for everything but the rig itself. Responsibility for well control must be understood and exercised by the operators on a daily basis.

    Finally, third party contractors must (not only) be hired for critical activities but also to prove the activity successful – INDEPENDENT of commercial constraints. Responsibility for well control must be augmented by the third party contractor for duration of the special activity.

    Lets get over the mindset of inevitability and exercise our own responsibility. If the nuclear industry took this attitude we would be in deep trouble. (TMI was the result of not understanding instrumentation – DWH was the result of bypassing known successful processes and procedures to minimize exploration costs).


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