Obama Talks Tough on Macondo Hearings

Although I was quite pleased to see Barack Obama win the US presidential election in 2008, him being the better candidate and my being of the opinion that it was hugely significant for the US to elect a black man to the highest office in the land, like many others I thought he seemed a man of many words and little action.  His time in office has done little to convince me I was wrong in this judgement and his recent outburst regarding the Macondo oil spill suggests that he doesn’t do a lot of thinking either.  From Upstream Online:

Obama said the executives were “falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else.”

“The American people could not have been impressed with that display and I certainly wasn’t,” he said today at a press conference at the White House.

At the hearings in front of both the House and Senate earlier this week BP was represented by the head of its Americas unit Lamar McKay; Transocean was represented by boss Steven Newman and Halliburton by its safety head Tim Probert.

“I will not tolerate more finger-pointing or irresponsibility,” Obama said.

Firstly, let’s be clear about something: despite claims from US politicians, BP’s response to this disaster has been pretty good.  They dispatched a flotilla of 32 cleanup vessels within 2 days of the initial blowout; by 26th April they had 1,000 personnel working on containing the spill; by 29th April there were 69 vessels on the scene, a number which had risen to 260 by 7th May, 530 by 10th May, 650 by 17th May, 750 by 18th May, and 930 by 20th May; they have released $25m block grants to each of the states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida to help accelerate the containment and cleanup activities; they have been doing their damndest to stop the flow of oil using  a variety of techniques; they have given $25 million to Florida and $15 million each to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to compensate for reduced tourism in the affected areas; 19,000 personnel are involved in the cleanup, excluding volunteers; they have pledged full support for and cooperation with the US government investigation into the disaster; by 18th May they had spent $650m on the containment and cleanup which is in line with a pledge they made on 2nd May that they would pay “all necessary and appropriate clean-up costs”.

This does not look to me like a company which is dragging its feet and ducking its responsibilities.

Now, putting things simply, there are several facts to consider:

1. BP is the operator of the license block and the Macondo Prospect which was being drilled at the time of the incident.

2. The drilling was being carried out by Transocean, who owned and operated the drillship Deepwater Horizon which was lost during the incident.

3. The safety device called a Blowout Preventer (BOP), which has several built-in redundancies which allow it to operate even in the most dire of circumstances, failed to function.  The BOP was manufactured by Cameron, but was owned by Transocean.

4. The well was cemented and cased shut by Halliburton.

5. Despite the cement and the casing, the well blew out, the BOP failed to do its job, and an explosion occurred.

As of now, and the time of the hearings which upset Obama so much, nobody knows exactly what occurred never mind why they occurred.  Nobody knows why the BOP failed and nobody knows why the cement or well casing failed as it did.  Without knowing exactly what happened and the mechanisms for failure (of which there are likely to be 3 or 4 in sequence), it is pretty hard for anybody to stand up and take full responsibility for every aspect of the disaster.  Yes, BP should – and in my opinion has – taken responsibility for the disaster overall, but this is not the same as admitting sole responsibility for everything that happened (or did not happen) when so much of the detail is not yet known.

The transcripts of the testimonies from the senior representatives of the four companies involved are available for download here, and I have read all of them.  In summary, relevant to what we’re talking about here:

1. BP pointed out that Transocean’s BOP failed.

2. Transocean made the point that all activities were carried out in compliance with BP’s operating procedures and specfications, which they have no choice but to follow.

3. Halliburton also made the point that it is “contractually bound to comply with the well owner’s instructions on all matters relating to the performance of all work‐related activities”, the well owner being BP in this case, and that “the cementing work on the … well was completed in accordance with the requirements of the well owner’s well construction plan”.

4. Cameron said “it is far too early to draw conclusions about how the incident occurred.”

Which is all perfectly true and is no more than can be expected.  Something has gone wrong, nobody is sure what.  BP points out the bleeding obvious, which is about all they can say without veering off into the realms of unhelpful speculation.  The rest of them say to the best of their knowledge they were doing everything properly, i.e. following BP’s procedures.  Either BP’s procedures are inadequate or somebody has not been following them, but until they can figure out what happened nobody is in any position to make a call one way or the other.

Personally, I’m struggling to see what Obama’s problem is other than perhaps he is trying to show he is a man of action and not just pretty words by sounding tough on people who genuinely don’t have the answers to the questions everyone is asking.  What does he expect them to do, admit responsibility for something they don’t even know for sure has happened?

Contrast this with an aeroplane crash.  An investigation gets launched, the airline is expected to take a prominent role and assume certain responsibilities, but nobody expects the carrier to assume full responsibility for all aspects of the crash before the investigation is complete.  If there was speculation that the engines had failed, one would expect the engine manufacturer to be allowed to state their position based on what is actually known, and the carrier to refer to the role of the engines in the disaster, without the country’s president berating them both for not, well, who knows what?  Making stuff up?

As Upstream Online sensibly put it:

We will not pass judgment at this stage on the cause of the accident and whether that could have or should have been prevented. Facts are simply too scarce at this stage.

It’s a shame President Obama couldn’t avoid making populist speeches aimed at shoring up his collapsing approval ratings and wait for the facts to emerge.  He would also do well to acknowledge that BP have responded to the incident in a manner which is much less deserving of the criticism it is getting from some quarters.

Incidentally, in all the media reports I’ve read on the incident, Upstream Online were alone in being gracious enough to note:

However, one immediate observation is that once the initial explosion and fire had occurred, the speed and professionalism of the evacuation, rescue operation and emergency response seem to have been top notch. The response, it would seem, was instrumental in preventing more lives from being lost.

Indeed.  Eleven men have been tragically killed, but a lot more were saved.  Gratitude is owed to those who made it so.

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17 thoughts on “Obama Talks Tough on Macondo Hearings

  1. Some of the hysteria on the American blogs has reminded me of the hysteria after 9/11. And that led to such top class decision-making, didn’t it?

  2. Another annoying habit is their constant referral to BP as British Petroleum, as the company being British makes them feel all self-righteous.

  3. Unfortunately every Congressional hearing goes like this. Mostly because nearly everyone in Congress is an idiot. I never understand why these CEOs don’t stand up to them and prove they these idiots have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. If Oliver North could do, how hard can it be?

    The other great thing about this is the President Obama may be the all time World Champion finger pointer. There is absolutely nothing bad that has happened in the 16 months that he has been in office that hasn’t been the fault of former president Bush or the Republicans in Congress (who have absolutely zero power).

  4. *dearieme – what hysteria, on what blogs? and what bad decisions were made after 9/11?

    Tim – you were pleased with Buraq’ installment in Oval Office? Because he was a better candidate? Are you kidding me?
    Vulgar marxist, a 20-year active member of racist antisemitic Black Liberation Church; an affirmative-action nobody with not a thing (absolutely none) in his resume except under-the-table deals and back-stabbing of his one-time associates – oh, I can continue…You were FOR him because his skin has a bit more melanin than you’re used to see in an average presidential candidate?

    It is futile to try to figure out what Oh,Bummer think or what his “problem” is – his problem is that he’s an empty suit, a pre-recorded message announcer, somebody who can’t think for themselves other than in quasi-academic cliches he memorized from years of his varied indoctrination.
    You expect a leftie blabbermouth to become a statesman who has in interests of his country at heart?

    And even that is questionable: “his” country? which one?

  5. Yeah, I thought John McCain was a decade past his best and didn’t look up to the job, and I thought unless the Republicans were hoofed out there was no chance they would become a party of small government. I think if McCain had won the Republicans would have continued with their spending spree with the Democrats promising even more lavish spending should they get in. At least now you have a Republican party which might – if the Tea Partiers gain more traction – start advocating smaller government and less spending. Hopefully the next election will feature a Republican candidate who will campaign on a platform of fiscal responsibility, something which would never have happened had McCain won.

    And yes, I think Obama being black was hugely significant regardless of his policies, if for no other reason than to shut up the tedious refrains from sections of the British left that America is an inherently racist country.

  6. Tim, that was a popular misconception, about shutting up lefties’ accusations of racism – and Oh’bummer himself is responsible, as he self-advertized as “post-racial” candidate, someone who’ll unite Americans on racial issue.
    Nothing could be farther from the truth: in 1.5yrs of his presidency all we heard from him is constant blaming everything he sees as negative on “racism” and those bad, bad white men -I’m sure you can find plernty material on that topic. Multiple polls showed the race relations are at the lowest point in decades they were in the country. Blacks figured out the bottom line of all his smokescreen speeches quicker than anybody: his “win” means they’re going to get even more handouts from the government than usual, on the basis of supposed racial discrimination. Which is now, from the White House lips, is the reason for tea party movement, etc – and I’m surprised he didn’t blame the oil spill on that, too!

    I’d never vote for a candidate based on his racial/ethnic composition; if that’s not a racism I don’t know what is.

    In theory, your reasoning is correct (re: McCain) I couldn’t stand him personally but voted for him – the alternative was clear from the start. We are paying too high a price now for this medicine we as a nation collectively chosen. I’m not at all sure the USA will resurrect itself to the same capacity as it was before Oh’Bummer’s era.The damage his handlers inflicted (and are going to inflict even more) may prove to be too extreme for recovery.

  7. Tim,

    I’ve been following this story quite closely and I can tell you that NONE of what you have posted regarding BP’s response has made the news here. Nothing. The story while covered widely isn’t being covered deeply. That is, we get a daily update that it’s still leaking and government is “working on the problem”.

    The one exception is 60 Minutes which did a story with one of the survivors who said that BP was pushing the schedule beyond safety limits. He also said that the BOP was closed and someone accidentally nudged the joystick for the drill which engaged the drill while clamped. Apparently this is A Very Bad Thing. Parts of the BOP were coming back in chunks in the “mud” and when rig operators presented that to BP they said all was well, continue as normal.

  8. I’d never advocate voting for anyone, Obama included, on the basis of race. But him having won the election on – presumably – different criteria, I think it was significant in a positive way. Had he lost I’d not have been bothered one jot, but since he won I thought it reflected well on America that it was possible for a black fella to get the president’s job. Similarly, some even fierce opponents of Maggie Thatcher think it was hugely significant that a woman would lead a major country such as the UK, as head of a Conservative government, no less.

    As for what Obama is doing now, it is a train wreck on almost every measure, and most of this was entirely predictable. However, the Republicans utterly failed to get their act together and mount a decent campaign and deserved to lose; after all, the people get the government they deserve.

  9. Duffy,

    My guess is somebody took a shortcut somewhere, somebody who was under serious schedule pressure. I am sure they’ll be arguing about where the ultimate responsibility for the fatal decision lies for years.

  10. Here is where blame can be put on BP.From the May 15 WSJ:
    What is known from drilling records 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.

    It is tomfoolery to replace dense drilling mud with seawater with about half the density of the mud it replaces, BEFORE you set the cement plug on the bottom. That is an invitation for formation fluids to rush into the wellbore.Which is precisely what occurred. BP did not follow standard operating procedures here.

  11. Gringo,

    Halliburton mentioned not setting the final cement plug in their testimony:

    We understand that the drilling contractor then proceeded to displace the riser with seawater prior to the planned placement of the final cement plug, which would have been installed inside the production string
    and enabled the planned temporary abandonment of the well. Prior to the point in the well construction
    plan that the Halliburton personnel would have set the final cement plug, the catastrophic incident
    occurred. As a result, the final cement plug was never set.

    Halliburton is confident that the cementing work on the Mississippi Canyon 252 well was completed in
    accordance with the requirements of the well owners well construction plan.

    This would suggest that BP’s well construction plan was being followed. So was the plan wrong? I am hopelessly out of my depth when it comes to the technicalities of drilling and if you have some experience in this area I’ll defer to you without question. But personally, I doubt it the plan was so fundamentally wrong. I’ve seen people deviate from procedures countless times, it is much rarer that I’ve seen an established procedure be wrong in such a manner. Perhaps the plan itself deviated from standard drilling practices, but again, I think it unlikely given how many wells would have been drilled under the same sort of plan. Certainly, Halliburton never mentioned in their testimony that what they were instructed to do was fundamentally wrong, but perhaps that was not the time and place to do so.

    Why I haven’t been paying much attention to the MSM during this incident is because they seem to leap to conclusions: the WSJ article has assumed not setting the final cement plug was a major error, whereas Halliburton has not stated this in their testimony (for whatever reason). I’m trying to go off the industry sources rather than journalists.

  12. Tim Newman:

    Why I havent been paying much attention to the MSM during this incident is because they seem to leap to conclusions.

    Given how the MSM operates overall, I would tend to agree with you. However, the WSJ is more reliable than most.

    the WSJ article has assumed not setting the final cement plug was a major error

    That is a misreading of the article. A major error appears to be replacing the dense drilling mud with seawater, which was approximately half the density of the drilling mud, BEFORE the final cement plug was set. Once the kick and then blowout occurred, it was impossible to set the final cement plug.

    See my previous statements.

    Im trying to go off the industry sources rather than journalists.

    The WSJ May 11 uses industry sources. Here are a petroleum engineering professor and a rig hand, who from different vantage points, reach the same conclusions.

    The plug is normally put in before the mud is removed, but according to the account of Halliburton, Transocean and the two workers, in this case, that wasn’t donedrilling mud was removed before a final cement plug was placed in the well.
    “We understand that the drilling contractor then proceeded to displace the riser with seawater prior to the planned placement of the final cement plug,” Mr. Probert [Halliburton] says in the prepared testimony, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The “riser” is part of the pipe running from the sea floor up to the drilling rig at the surface.
    Lloyd Heinze, chairman of the petroleum engineering department at Texas Tech University, agrees that this is an unusual approach. “Normally, you would not evacuate the riser until you were done with the last plug at the sea floor,” he said in an interview.
    A worker who was on the drilling rig said in an interview that Halliburton was getting ready to set a final cement plug at 8,000 feet below the rig when workers received other instructions. “Usually we set the cement plug at that point and let it set for six hours, then displace the well,” said the worker, meaning take out the mud.

    Here are two industry sources who agree that displacing the dense drilling mud with seawater before setting the bottom plug was not standard operating procedure.

    Regarding why they did it this way, and specifically who made the decision, is yet to be determined.

    Halliburton is simply covering itself, to point out that it did what BP told it to do, so it was a dutiful contractor.
    Also in Neo-neocon.

  13. Gringo,

    Interesting stuff, indeed. As somebody who is not so familiar with the drilling procedures, I didn’t spot that Halliburton’s testimony alluded to such an error on the part of the well construction plan. I am surprised nobody else has picked this up, because this is as close as we’ve got to a root cause. I am guessing there are people who know but are either keeping their mouths shut (it not being their place to speak up), or they are waiting for the right time and place before committing themselves. Still, I’m surprised the industry journals and web forums aren’t all over this.

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