MMS shortcomings changed government response to Macondo well spill

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Nov. 24 -- The federal response to crude oil spilling from BP PLC’s Macondo well in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico involved more experts from the oil and gas industry and from government departments and agencies once it became apparent the US Minerals Management Service’s scientific knowledge was limited, according to a new staff working paper prepared for US President Barack Obama’s independent oil spill commission.

BP started discussing drilling a relief well as early as Apr. 21, a day after the Macondo well blew out and the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig exploded, killing 11 workers, because initial efforts to actuate the well’s blowout preventer (BOP) stack did not succeed and two separate leaks from the riser were identified, the working paper said. Within days, the company mobilized two rigs to drill a primary relief well and a back-up insisted upon by US Department of the Interior Sec. Ken Salazar.

“Other than the lengthy process of drilling a relief well, BP had no available, tested technique to stop a deepwater blowout,” the staff working paper said. “Less than a week after the explosion, it embarked on what would become a massive effort to develop containment options, either by adapting shallow-water technology to the deepwater environment or by designing entirely new devices.”

It said teams at BP’s US offshore exploration headquarters in Houston concentrated on different ways to either stop the flow of oil or collect it at the source. “Each team also had what amounted to a blank check,” the working paper said. “As one contractor put it, ‘Whatever you needed, you got it. If you needed something from a machine shop and you couldn’t jump the line, they bought the machine shop.’ Several MMS officials agreed that, for BP, money was no object: If a team needed equipment, whether it was a ship, freestanding riser, or flexible hose, BP would buy it.”

It added that Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, pointed out the company’s parallel processing effort required enormous resources and the size of its presence in the gulf was a big advantage.

Contacted competitors
BP also sought help and advice from the oil and gas industry, according to the working paper. “One well control expert recalled a meeting in early May with at least 35 people, including representatives from the four companies in the world that specialize in well control; BP’s major competitors, including ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell; and academic petroleum engineering departments,” it said. “The expert remembered BP forthrightly admitting that it was seeking all of the help it could get. According to Suttles, nearly everyone in the industry recognized the magnitude of the emergency and answered BP’s calls for assistance.”

It noted MMS was the primary federal oversight and expertise entity for source control operations, while the US Coast Guard supervised surface operations, vessel safety, and firefighting operations. It said officials from the two agencies in Houston drafted a process to help identify and mitigate hazards which, once finalized, would be forwarded to the Unified Area Command and Louisiana where MMS Gulf of Mexico Region Director Lars Herbst or his deputy, Mike Saucier, further reviewed and approved the procedures before the federal on-scene coordinator, a USCG admiral, gave the final go-ahead. This sign-off process was used throughout the containment effort, the working paper said.

“MMS was the sole government agency charged with understanding deepwater wells and related technology, such as BOP stacks,” the paper said. “Its supervision of the containment effort, however, was limited, in line with its established role in overseeing deepwater drilling more generally. Its staff did not attempt to dictate whether BP should perform an operation, to suggest consideration of other options, or to determine whether an operation had a significant likelihood of success. Rather, MMS focused on minimizing the safety risks of operations BP proposed and ensuring conformity with MMS regulations.”

It said that MMS’ limited role was partly due to limited resources. “At most, MMS had four to five employees in Houston trying to oversee BP’s efforts,” it said. “One employee described his experience as akin to standing in a hurricane. Despite working more than 80 hr a week, this individual recalled having to miss more than half of the BP engineering team meetings he was supposed to attend each day.”

The resource constraints don’t fully explain MMS’ role, the working paper continued. It said interviews with agency staff members suggested MMS considered itself neither capable of, nor responsible for, providing more substantive oversight.

‘Ten times the expertise’
“One MMS employee asserted that BP, and industry more broadly, possessed 10 times the expertise that MMS could bring to bear on the enormously complex problem of deepwater containment,” the paper said. “Another pointed out that MMS has trouble attracting the most talented personnel, who are more likely to work in industry where salaries are substantially higher. A third MMS employee stated he could count on one hand the people from the agency whom he would trust to make key decisions in a source control effort of this magnitude. Perhaps most revealingly, two MMS employees recalled high-level officials at [DOI] asking what they would do if the US Government took over the containment effort. Both said they would hire one of the major oil companies.”

It said that as a result, early containment efforts moved forward with BP deploying in-house and outside industry expertise to develop a containment effort while MMS and the Coast Guard provided limited supervision.

Possibly prompted by the failure of a cofferdam to contain the leaking oil, the federal government soon increased its response footprint, according to the working paper. Deputy DOI Sec. David J. Hayes facilitated the addition of scientists and engineers from three US Department of Energy national laboratories to help BP get diagnostic information about the well and BOP stack in early May. The scientists and engineers would remain at BP’s US E&P headquarters in Houston for the containment effort’s duration.

Salazar also asked US Geological Survey Director Marcia K. McNutt, who had traveled with him to the gulf on May 4, to remain in Houston to oversee source control efforts, the working paper said. Finally, on May 10, Obama directed US Energy Secretary Steven Chu to form a team of government scientists to work with BP on source control, it said. Chu called several prominent scientists on May 11 and asked them to join him the next day at 6:30 a.m. for a meeting with BP in Houston, which began their oversight, it added.

The paper said this team included well-known scientists and engineers, some of whom had previous oil and gas experience. While all attended the May 12 meeting in person, most of their later decisions were made during conference calls, it said. They also did not immediately fit into the existing response because they lacked a formal role within the Unified Command structure and worked 15 floors away from McNutt, MMS, and USCG employees at BP’s Houston headquarters, it said.

‘Never reached out’
“One MMS staffer who was in Houston from late April through early July told commission staff members that he never interacted with the national labs team: They never reached out to him, and he had no idea on what they were working,” the paper said. “Perhaps as a result of these unclear lines of authority, BP’s provision of data to the government was uneven. Although BP gave information when asked, it did not proactively share, so government officials had to know what information they were seeking and ask for it specifically. By mid-June, the government teams created a process by which the national labs engineers and science advisors could direct formal requests for information and action to BP.”

Finally, it said both the science advisors and experts from DOE’s national labs had to educate themselves on the situation and on deepwater petroleum exploration in general before they could substantively participate in decision-making. “Thus, in mid-May, while the science advisors were learning the lay of the land, the national labs engineers focused on helping BP obtain diagnostic information through efforts such as gamma-ray imaging of the BOP stack,” it said. “Meanwhile, throughout May, BP set the strategy for trying to control the well, with limited government oversight.”

The paper noted that while the spill’s response and eventual successful containment contain many success stories, such remarkable efforts were necessary because of the oil and gas industry and federal government’s inadequate advance preparation.

It said first, beyond trying to close the well’s BOP stack and drilling a relief well soon after the Apr. 20 blowout and explosion, there were no proven options for source control in deepwater. Second, the government was not prepared to oversee a deepwater source control effort. Third, underestimates of the flow rate apparently impeded planning for source control efforts such as the cofferdam and, especially, the top kill. Fourth, a lack of reliable tools (such as accurate pressure gauges at the wellhead and a way to understand the position of the BOP’s rams) complicated containment. Fifth, in designing the Macondo well, BP apparently did not consider how its use of rupture discs would affect the well’s integrity during a post-blowout source control effort.

“Sixth and finally, because BP is one of the world’s largest [oil] companies, it had the resources to bankroll and implement a massive containment effort—and still needed 87 days to stop the flow of oil into the gulf,” the working paper said. “All deepwater operators do not have BP’s resources. The commission may wish to consider recommendations aimed at requiring smaller deepwater operators to demonstrate the capacity to respond to a disaster of this magnitude, whether through bonding or insurance, membership in industry consortiums focused on well control, or otherwise.”

Contact Nick Snow at

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