JIT found possible operating lapses on Macondo rig, panel told

The joint investigation by the two federal entities responsible for offshore safety enforcement and environmental protection found that numerous system deficiencies and acts of omission by Transocean Ltd. and the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig’s crew reduced opportunities to limit the April 20, 2010, Macondo well incident’s damage, a US Coast Guard official told a congressional committee.

Vice-Adm. Brian M. Salerno, the USCG’s deputy commandant for operations, testified that while a loss of well control triggered the blowout that led to the explosion and fire that killed 11 people and sunk the semisubmersible rig, on-board operating deficiencies may have contributed to the incident’s magnitude.

“These included poor maintenance of electrical equipment that may have ignited the explosion, bypassed hydrocarbon gas alarms and automatic shutdown systems, and training shortfalls in critical areas such as engine shutdown and emergency well disconnect procedures,” he told the US House Natural Resources Committee during an Oct. 13 hearing examining the final investigation report by USCG and the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement’s Joint Investigation Team.

Salerno added that JIT’s initial report in April revealed, with certain identified exceptions, USCG-regulated systems aboard the mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) generally worked despite the event’s extreme nature. “Most of the survivors were able to evacuate the MODU using the installed lifesaving equipment,” Salerno testified. “A few of the survivors jumped from the rig into the water and were rescued. Even though significantly damaged by the explosions and the ensuing fire, the Deepwater Horizon was able to stay afloat for more than 48 hr.”

Continuous improvement

Witnesses from BP PLC, the well operator, and the Halliburton Co. subsidiary that supplied cementing and other services, as well as Transocean questioned the idea that defective systems and practices significantly contributed to the incident. “We drill thousands of offshore wells each year for many producers without any problems,” said James Bement, vice-president of Halliburton’s Sperry Drilling division. Halliburton has a continuous improvement process in each of its divisions that assures operating standards and procedures are frequently reviewed and improved, he added.

Bill Ambrose, managing director of Transocean’s North American division, said while the drilling contractor remained ready and willing to assist the committee in its inquiries, it could not respond directly to the JIT reports’ specific findings and recommendations because federal regulations limit the use of such proceedings. “Lastly, the BOEMRE proceedings are still active in the litigation process, and therefore I cannot discuss them,” he continued. BP America Inc. Vice-Pres. Ray Dempsey and Bement also said pending litigation against their companies limited their capacity to respond.

Dempsey said since the incident, BP has taken several actions to improve operations, including organizational changes to enhance safety, operational integrity, and risk management. The company also has implemented voluntary deepwater drilling standards that go beyond regulations, strengthened its management policies for contractors, and continued to implement recommendations from the internal investigation it conducted following the incident, Dempsey said.

Ambrose said Transocean formed an internal investigation team of employees and independent experts immediately after the incident and provided it with the necessary resources. It also issued an alert to its global fleet to ensure that blowout preventer schematics reflect the current arrangements of each rig’s BOP, and to reinforce the company’s emergency response preparedness, he indicated.

“We have also designed standardized procedures for conducting negative pressure tests for operators,” Ambrose said. “In consultation with our customers, we have enhanced our well integrity guidelines. Further, the company has expanded the scope of its internal audit and assessment program and updated its well control manual to reflect lessons learned.” Transocean continues to study the appropriateness and reliability of acoustic control systems for the BOP, and continues to evaluate potential equipment and procedures for early kick detection and the handling of gas in the riser, he noted.

‘Beginning of a process’

The three companies’ representatives said they also could not comment on the Incidence of Non-Compliance citations the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) issued on Oct. 12 because the companies were studying them (OGJ Online, Oct. 13, 2011). “It’s important to note that it’s the beginning of a process,” said Dempsey. “The notices are an important indication that the regulator will hold contractors accountable for their roles in [incidents] like this. While we’ve acknowledged our role from the start, we’ve also noted that other parties may have been involved. We expect contractors to do their work safely and rely on their expertise and experience.”

Michael R. Bromwich, BSSE’s interim director who previously led BOEMRE, said while the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act gave the US Department of the Interior authority to regulate all aspects of offshore operations, it simply had been the custom to limit rules to well operators and not include drilling contractors or service companies before the Macondo incident. When he joined what formerly was the US Minerals Management Service in June 2010, Bromwich said he asked Interior’s solicitor’s office to specify which parts of OCSLA provide the broader authority before beginning to implement it.

“We didn’t have sufficiently strong regulations on both the prescriptive area and in setting standards for operators and contractors to meet,” he conceded. “But [the incident] was not a governmental failure. It was a failure by the companies that drilled the well. There are things the government can do to reduce the chances of this happening again. Industry, on its own, also needs to be committed to the safety of operating offshore.” Congress and the administration also need to provide sufficient funds for agencies regulating offshore oil and gas operations to do their job effectively, he added.

D. James Dykes, a 12-year employee of BOEMRE and MMS who co-chaired the JIT, said the investigation discovered that additional barriers are needed to prevent similar offshore well incidents from happening again. Additional research and regulatory revisions, rig design revisions, and changes to well control and emergency response training will add those barriers, but they cannot guarantee that the human element in the equation will perform as intended, he told the committee. “This specific issue will haunt the oil and gas industry, and every other industry where personnel are required to make decisions based on raw data,” he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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