oil spill hearings
The oil spill hearings by the Coast Guard ended yesterday and here is a link to the archive from the Times Picayune.
Deepwater Horizon’s ill-fated oil well could have been handled more carefully, hearings reveal
By David Hammer, The Times-Picayune
May 29, 2010, 10:35PM
The Associated Press
As much as rig workers and BP executives professed otherwise, revelations from six days of investigative hearings that ended Saturday provided evidence the oil well drilled at Mississippi Canyon 252 off the Louisiana coast was problematic and could have been handled with more care before it blew up, setting the stage for the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
Testimony during the hearings in Kenner included eyewitness recollections and engineers’ opinions of the well’s design, but nobody took responsibility or pinned clear blame for the April 20 accident.
When pressed by a panel of Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service officials, the witnesses generally said they weren’t worried before April 20 about well control problems that the Deepwater Horizon rig had experienced in an oilfield 50 miles southeast of Venice.
As the rig’s crew was preparing to set a final cement plug in the top of the well so they could abandon the exploratory well and leave it for another team to start collecting its riches, there were a number of tests to perform. But BP decided to forgo several of them, and in at least one case, an employee from rig owner Transocean had to insist on running a pressure test, saying he would not proceed without it.
MMS documents disclosed at the hearings showed the work was six weeks behind schedule, putting BP at least $20 million over budget based on its daily lease rate for the rig, which belonged to Transocean.
An MMS official on the investigative panel, Jason Mathews, wondered at Friday’s hearing whether the expense was causing the workers to feel pressure to cut corners.
Testimony at the Kenner hearings showed that the well plan was changed several times a few days before the accident; that a new form of lighter, nitrogen-infused cement was used at deeper levels of the well than the crew was used to; and that BP’s plan for closing the well didn’t include a key test to see whether any pressure was building in the well. However, Transocean’s top drilling official on the rig, Jimmy Harrell, made sure the test was done.
Finally, testimony indicated that BP decided not to perform a test on the mud at the bottom of the well before starting to place the final cement lining that experts believe was a likely source of the gas that eventually blew out the well.
Harrell testified Thursday that BP decided to forgo a “bottoms-up” test that would have examined the condition of drilling mud sitting in the zone where a casing shoe was about to be placed to guard against the prospect that natural gas or oil would get into the well and force its way upward.
On Saturday, the final day of hearings until they resume in July, Micah Burgess, a driller who worked under Harrell, was asked whether it was standard to perform a bottoms-up test.
“Yes sir, you try to,” Burgess said, “just to make sure you got good clean mud (before starting a cement job). You check for gas, too.”
As it turned out, gas got into the well April 20 and blew out through valves and seals at the ocean floor, up 5,000 feet of riser pipe in the sea and onto the rig above, engulfing it in flames, killing 11 workers and starting the spill that has soiled miles of Louisiana’s coast.
BP’s drilling engineer in Houston, Mark Hafle, approved the well plan for Mississippi Canyon 252. MMS officials on the panel criticized the well plan, saying that it made a good cement-seal job difficult, but Hafle disagreed and said he was not concerned.
The New York Times reported Saturday that it had obtained internal BP reports expressing concern about the well, including one written by Hafle nearly a year ago in which he said pressure could break through the well’s casing in a worst-case scenario.
“I have seen it happen so know it can occur,” The Times quoted from Hafle’s report, in marked contrast to his comments during his Friday testimony in Kenner.
On Saturday, the Coast Guard and MMS panel had a chance to press a BP executive who also signed off on the well plan, David Sims, the company’s drilling operations manager for the deepwater Gulf of Mexico.
But with Sims testifying by telephone from Houston, where he’s in charge of one of two relief wells BP is drilling to try to stop the well’s flow, Mathews said the panel decided to avoid any questions about the well design until July, when the panel hopes to question Sims in person.
In other testimony Saturday, Burgess, who was off-duty and in his living quarters when the explosions occurred, said that he and his night-shift counterpart, Dewey Revette, had the authority to trigger an emergency disconnect system to dislodge the rig from the well in an emergency. That might not have stopped the leaking well, but it could have saved the rig and the crew from the gas that soon ignited in huge fireballs on deck.
But, Burgess said, the standard procedure before hitting the emergency disconnect system, or EDS, was to check with another employee, the subsea supervisor, who controlled the ultimate fail-safe shearing devices on the blowout preventer, the huge stack of valves that covers the well head.
Revette was killed April 20, likely by the initial explosion after he and others worked in the drill room to control the “kicking” well.
The subsea supervisor, Chris Pleasant, testified Friday that he didn’t hit the EDS button until several minutes after the explosions. Pleasant said that as soon as he got to the bridge after the explosions, he encouraged the rig’s master, Capt. Curt Kuchta, to disconnect.
“Calm down! We’re not EDS-ing,” Kuchta told him, Pleasant said.
But 30 seconds later, Pleasant said, he did hit the button to trigger the emergency disconnect and shear rams on the blowout preventer. A control panel indicated they worked, Pleasant said, but in reality they did not.