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?

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Macondo Failure Mechanisms Identified

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.

    Translation:

    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.

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    More Macondo Madness

    Just when I was beginning to think the US government couldn’t get more stupid regarding the Macondo oil leak, we get this:

    Oil firm BP may be “pushed out of the way” if it fails to perform in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster clean-up, a top US official has warned.

    Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the British company had missed “deadline after deadline” in its efforts to seal a blown-out oil well.

    “If we find they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we’ll push them out of the way appropriately,” Mr Salazar told reporters after visiting BP’s US headquarters.

    So they’re  going to boot BP off the job?  And who, then, is going to plug the leak?  Politicians?  Perhaps we could put Hilary Clinton’s mouth over the wellhead?  Or stuff the latest draft of the healthcare bill into the hole?  Who else can muster a flotilla of cleanup vessels and the army of subsea experts BP currently have on the scene?  Is Mr Salazar so completely deluded as to the capabilities of government – which, in case we forget, could not organise putting people onto buses three days before hurricane Katrina – that he thinks they are in a position to cap a leaking well a mile under the sea?

    As the BBC article helpfully acknowledges:

    Although it is within the government’s power to push BP aside, our correspondent says BP is the only organisation with the knowledge to deal with a situation like this at such a depth.

    Quite. Regardless of what BP has failed to do thus far, kicking them off the job now would be the height of stupidity.  As The Economist notes in an extremely well written and researched article:

    Where once the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig floated in solitary splendour, there are now two similar rigs, along with the Discoverer Enterprise, a drilling ship; the Viking Poseidon, which knows how to install things on the sea floor; four mother ships for remotely operated underwater vehicles; various barges and supply vessels; and the Q4000, a rig that specialises in repairing and closing wells. If the well that the Deepwater Horizon was in the process of closing off four weeks ago continues to spray oil into the sea for months to come, it won’t be for a lack of expensive, sophisticated and improbable-looking hardware a mile up above it.

    The reason BP is struggling is because what it is trying to do is exceptionally difficult.  Yet understanding that seems to present an even bigger obstacle to some people.

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    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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