Macondo actions did not sacrifice safety to save money, panel told

Decisions made in the hours before the Macondo deepwater well blew out on Apr. 20 apparently did not subordinate safety to save money, the chief investigator of US President Barack Obama’s independent oil spill commission said as the panel, which is investigating the accident and subsequent oil spill, began a 2-day hearing on Nov. 8.

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Nov. 8 -- Decisions made in the hours before the Macondo deepwater well blew out on Apr. 20 apparently did not subordinate safety to save money, the chief investigator of US President Barack Obama’s independent oil spill commission said as the panel, which is investigating the accident and subsequent oil spill, began a 2-day hearing on Nov. 8.

“To date, we have not seen a single instance where a human being onshore or at the well itself made a conscious decision to value dollars over safety,” emphasized Fred H. Bartlit Jr., a founding partner of Denver law firm Bartlit, Beck, Herman, Palenchar & Scott LLP. Personnel were aware that they were dealing with a difficult well, but conditions did not appear impossible to handle, he said.

Some steps appear questionable in retrospect, but may never be fully explained because people who may have made important decisions were among the 11 workers killed when hydrocarbons which came up the BP PLC well that night ignited and caused Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible drilling rig to explode, another of the commission’s staff investigators said.

“The parties involved wanted us to assign blame. That’s not our job. We’re not trying to assess blame or fault or liability,” said Sean C. Grimsley, who also works for Bartlit, Beck, Herman, Palenchar & Scott. “The point is that everyone on that rig apparently had convinced themselves by 8 p.m. that there were no problems with the negative pressure test and that it was all right to move ahead with the abandonment procedure.”

Bartlit said, “Nobody thought they were taking a risk. Nobody thought the test had been screwed up.” Several activities were occurring simultaneously which may have distracted crew members’ attention, but no regulations address this matter, he added. “Transocean had a very impressive technical manual for its employees. It may be, when time was short, that people decided to do things differently,” he said. The inquiry also was limited because the commission does not have subpoena power, he said.

Negative pressure test
No government regulations or industry recommended practices covered how or whether a negative pressure test should have been conducted on the well, Grimsley said. “If the crew that night had not conducted one, they would not have violated a government regulation. BP did not have any procedures or training for its people. Neither did Transocean, at least prior to this event,” he told the commission.

BP’s temporary abandonment procedures at Macondo could have introduced additional risks, such as putting more pressure on Halliburton Co.’s cement job by removing mud and replacing it with seawater, setting the surface cement plug 3,000 ft deep, or deciding not to run a cement bond log test immediately, he continued.

“What is of additional concern for us is that the procedures for temporary abandonment were changing up until the very last minute,” said Grimsley. “It is not clear to us why decisions on these procedures were changing in the days before the blowout. You have to make choices on the fly when conditions are changing offshore, but this apparently was not the case here.” There also was no indication that anyone at the rig called to shore in the three hours after the negative pressure test ended and the well blew out and said that test readings were odd, he indicated.

Bartlit said BP’s decision to halt drilling nearly 2,000 ft short of the well’s original intended depth may have been based on concern that it had to keep mud and cement from leaking into adjacent formations, which could have fractured from unusually high pressure in the well. “They stopped because they were interested in well integrity and safety,” he said. Surprises in the reservoir can cause you to make changes which can affect what happens later. As near as we can tell, talking to experts, BP did the right thing here.”

Mark Bly, BP’s executive vice-president of safety and operational risk; Bill Ambrose, Transocean’s special projects director; Richard F. Vargo Jr., Halliburton’s cementing manager for the Gulf of Mexico; and John Gisclair, on-site support service coordinator for Halliburton’s Sperry Sun Drilling Services division were scheduled to testify as the hearing continued the afternoon of Nov. 8.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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