We are still far from getting a clear idea of what exactly caused the well blowout on BP’s Macondo prospect, but the invesigation has managed to identify seven control mechanisms on which it will focus:
The investigation team’s work thus far shows that this accident was brought about by the failure of a number of processes, systems and equipment. There were multiple control mechanisms— procedures and equipment—in place that should have prevented this accident or reduced the impact of the spill: the investigation is focused on the following seven mechanisms.
1. The cement that seals the reservoir from the well;
2. The casing system, which seals the well bore;
3. The pressure tests to confirm the well is sealed;
4. The execution of procedures to detect and control hydrocarbons in the well, including the use of the BOP;
5. The BOP Emergency Disconnect System, which can be activated by pushing a button at multiple locations on the rig;
6. The automatic closure of the BOP after its connection is lost with the rig; and
7. Features in the BOP to allow Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) to close the BOP and thereby seal the well at the seabed after a blow out.
As is the case in almost all large oilfield accidents, the Macondo blowout is likely to be the result of mutliple failures or errors, and not a single idenifiable cause. There will be four main questions to answer during the investigation:
A. Why did blowout conditions arise in the well?
B. Why did the measures put in place to prevent a blowout not work?
C. Why was the blowout not contained once it was inevitable a blowout would occur?
D. Why were the effects of the blowout not minimised once it had occurred?
Referring to the list of seven failure mechanisms above:
No. 4 is a factor related to the blowout occuring in the first place (A); controlling pressures in the well is essential to avoiding this.
Nos. 1, 2, 3 and (to an extent) 4 are factors related to the blowout occurring once conditions had formed (B); cementing, casing, and the BOP are supposed to prevent a blowout occuring even if well conditions indicate there is a risk of such.
Nos. 5 and 6 are factors related to the blowout not being contained as it should (C); a BOP is not only a tool used in the control of well conditions to prevent a blowout occurring, it is also a device for slamming the door shut once a blowout is inevitable.
No. 7 is a factor related to the degree to which the disaster escalated (in terms of oil released) once it had occurred (D).
Complicating things even further is the fact that some of these questions will overlap, and the answers will also overlap one another. For instance, a faulty BOP might be crucial in both failing to measure and control the well pressures as well as failing to contain the blowout.
Determining exactly which of the seven mechanisms contributed to which failures is going to be a complex task. As BP CEO Tony Hayward has stated, presumably to a target audience of simple politicians and the equally simple media:
“I understand people want a simple answer about why this happened and who is to blame. The honest truth is that this is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures … a number of companies are involved, including BP, and it is simply too early – and not up to us – to say who is at fault.”
Quite. Major accidents in the modern oil and gas industry are rarely simple affairs, and the Macondo blowout is no exception.
Having read the BP press releases, I get the impression they are beginning to realise what sort of clowns they are dealing with in the mainstream media and are hedging their comments accordingly. Take this one, for example:
BP today confirmed that following detailed discussion with the National Incident Commander, Admiral Thad Allen, it will continue to provide live video feeds from the seabed throughout the planned ‘top kill’ procedure – the attempt to stop the flow from the damaged MC252 well by pumping heavy drilling fluids into it.
Throughout the extended top kill procedure – which may take up to two days to complete – very significant changes in the appearance of the flows at the seabed may be expected. These will not provide a reliable indicator of the overall progress, or success or failure, of the top kill operation as a whole. BP will report on the progress of the operation as appropriate and on its outcome when complete.
We are doing as requested by being open and transparent in sharing the live feed of our attempts to stop the oil flow from the Macondo well.
However: idiotic journalists and politicians, please do not leap to ill-informed conclusions based on what you see from a 30-second cursory glance and run your mouths off to the whole world about how badly we’re doing. Contrary to your earlier comments, we do have some idea what’s going on down there, and almost certainly a better idea than you do. So let’s just keep our mouths shut and our typewriters silent until we have some concrete information, eh?
Finally, spare a thought for Robert Dudley, BP Vice President for the Americas and Asia. He was the former CEO of TNK-BP who had his work visa application turned down as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to force BP to cede control of the company to somebody more favourable to themselves. As he departed Russia for the last time on the flight to his new posting, he must have thought the days of being hounded by politicians with an axe to grind were behind him.