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By Bill White
Yesterday Texas’ Governor referred to an “act of God” when questioned about the blowout on the BP well, and talked about “a big wave coming along at an inopportune time.” Others who oppose offshore drilling are also claiming humans cannot prevent this kind of catastrophe, and that it is inevitable despite use of the best technology and procedures. These kind of sweeping generalizations are not helpful to determining the path forward for offshore drilling.
We all should keep the families of those who lost their lives, and those who are working non-stop to contain the spill, in our prayers. I write to explain some basics about well blowouts in deep water and questions that must be answered to minimize the risks of a similar incident in the future.
Everyone in the industry for years has known that the best way to deal with a blowout in deep waters is to prevent it and to have equipment in place on the ocean floor to shut in the well. Federal and state leadership should require BP, Transocean, and their experts who have reviewed this situation to make public the details of what happened and the plan and timetable for bringing the well under control.
For understandable reasons, most of the public information and planning has centered on efforts to contain the growing oil spill. In the last several days experts working on this
problem have made public several plans to bring the well under control. Many of us believe that successful placement of a subsea containment vessel over one or more of the leaks holds real promise for significantly reducing the flow, although it will require enormous skill to execute. Many good men and women work in the offshore industry and for this company, and no one intended the loss of human life and damage to the marine environment. However, I, and others knowledgeable about the industry have found insufficient information available about what the responsible companies now know concerning the causes of the blowout.
Two personal experiences shape my strong belief that we must understand the causes of the blowout to determine how to avoid this situation in the future. First, almost 25 years ago, a bankruptcy judge and trustee both put me on a team that dealt with one of the largest onshore blowouts, spewing highly toxic gas. The blowout occurred near Jackson, Mississippi, and the operator was bankrupt, so a new team of experts worked together to bring the well under control after it was a towering inferno for months; I led the group which identified the cause as preventable human error. Second, in the mid-1990s, I led U.S. Government efforts to begin the closure of the surviving nuclear reactors at Chernobyl. Again, we had to identify the causes of the initial failure and release, and it turned out to be a combination of design flaws of the Russian RBMK reactors and egregious human errors. In the first case, the facts showed that sour gas drilling could be successfully undertaken with better procedures. In the second, we concluded that the design of all of the oldest Soviet reactors posed an enormous risk, and that those reactors must be closed.
An expert panel should immediately begin the investigation of what went wrong and how to prevent it, so the public and others can make more informed decisions about the risks of deep offshore drilling.
Blowouts and Well Control
A blowout is an uncontrolled flow of oil and gas, and anything it may bring up with it such as water and rock. We find oil and gas deep underground, where the sheer weight of the rock exerts pressure on concentrations of the fluid or gas so it will flow naturally to drilled holes called wells. The industry looks for oil and gas in places where it can flow from the pressurized rock into the hole, or “well bore”, and subsequently, to the surface. If the rock is too dense where hydrocarbons are present, then the oil or gas cannot naturally flow into the well bore and must be stimulated to be economically productive.
In the early days of the industry people talked about “gushers” and people celebrated when they would experience a big plume of oil spewing out of a completed hole. But as the whole world’s sensitivity to the environmental risks of hydrocarbon production increased, and as people drilled to greater depths, encountering even greater reservoir pressures, more sophisticated well control technologies were needed to ensure that the oil or gas did not “flow” up the well bore without proper control, assuring that it was safely produced into tanks and processing facilities when it hit the surface.
At each point during the drilling operations, up until the time there is controlled flow of petroleum or natural gas from the underground reservoir, a fundamental challenge to petroleum engineers is to maintain proper control and pressure coming up from deep beneath the surface of the earth. An elaborate set of steel pipes, valves, cement barriers, and heavy drilling fluids referred to as “mud” are used to control the flow of oil and gas.
Blowouts have become rarer. There are, of course, cases of mechanical failure, but ultimately those are generally little more than human error in the design, assembly, and supplying mechanical equipment. There is intense and sophisticated training that teaches a multitude of back up contingency plans depending on well conditions.
Deep Water Operations
Most of the large new oil discoveries in the world, and especially in the Western Hemisphere, are occurring in ocean depths that weren’t practical to drill in just fifteen years ago. Deep water exploration has posed a number of technical challenges, and has required some of the most sophisticated technology ever designed by human beings. Perhaps the most difficult challenge is simply designing drilling rigs and production platforms which are not firmly attached to the ocean floor. These vessels must be able to withstand a variety of extraordinary forces generated by the winds and waves and currents in the ocean. All equipment must be able to operate, above and below the ocean surface, under enormous pressures and stress.
Another principal challenge in dealing with deep water has been the need for advanced technologies for those operations which must be conducted on the ocean floor itself. The sheer weight or pressure of the water column is enormous. Human beings cannot
function effectively under thousands of feet of water, so the work is performed by remotely operated vehicles. Often in the industry people compare operations under a mile of ocean water as challenging as operations on the moon.
No situation poses a greater technological and operational challenge in the deep oceans than dealing with a blowout. Bringing a wild well under control requires improvisation. Typically equipment is not configured in its “normal” place. This type of improvisation is difficult when all intelligence and activities must be conducted by specially-designed, remotely-operated vehicles. In the case of the BP blowout, for instance, there is about a mile of 18 inch flexible pipe that has collapsed like a tangled garden hose on top of this well, with one or more leaks. There is no “off the shelf” solution.
On land the incredible skill and efficiency of blowout specialists was demonstrated after Saddam Hussein torched hundreds of wells after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the American military response.
Because of the difficulty of responding to a blowout in deep water after it happens, it is critical simply to avoid loss of well control. There are some times during well operations when the risks are great. One of those times is during the transition from the equipment used to drill or construct the well, and the equipment used to complete and produce the
well. This transition appears to be the time when the blowout occurred on this particular well.
It is likely that many of those most knowledgeable about the accident tragically lost their lives. Most of the public communication so far has concerned the critically important job of containing the oil spill.
But it is also important to know as quickly as possible some of the reason for the blow out in order for both the industry and regulators to determine those actions which may need to be undertaken to avoid this type of incident in the future. No one can
successfully rewrite history or undo what has already been done. All Americans, all those within the industry, and all responsible government authorities should work together to contain the spill and minimize the damage to the Gulf ecology and those who depend on coastal resources.
The purpose of the following series of questions or issues is not to blame or suggest some unique knowledge of those involved, but simply to inform intelligent public discussion.
Where did the unexpected surge or “kick” of natural gas come from? There was a buildup of pressure from natural gas in the well before it was opened. In drilling
operations this is referred to as a “kick,” when gas from the earth, or “the formation,”
seeps and expands directly into the drilling mud. The drilling mud must be heavy enough to control these kicks, and crude oil is sometimes heavy enough to dissipate or prevent an uncontrolled surge of gas when the oil well is actually in production.
There is speculation that this may have been something called a “back side blow out.” To understand what this means, and its implication, you need to understand that this and other wells at the sub sea or land surface consists of two metal pipes, one inside the other. Petroleum is produced through the inner, smaller-diameter pipe. A cement barrier is constructed between the out pipe and the inner pipe. A “back side blowout” occurs when oil or gas comes up through the annulus, the space between those two pipes. This should not occur if the well is properly cemented. The presence of a high concentration of gas between the two layers of pipe would certainly not be a usual source of a gas kick, but still there should have been signs of pressure and indications of the risk.
Why didn’t the procedures and monitoring devices tell the crew about the gas pressure, and if they did why was the well opened without adequate control? There is a serious question about why the very high gas pressure building up in the well before it was opened somehow was not detected by the rig crew. There is some public information showing that the well did encounter some flows of gas into the well bore during the drilling of the well, so those in the control room should have been alert to this kind of pressure build up.
Why didn’t the blowout preventer work? Finally, either the blowout preventer did not work or for some reason it was not closed. Standard practice would be to test the functioning of this blowout preventer before the well was opened. This makes simple “equipment malfunction” unlikely. It is more likely that either personnel failed to
respond quickly after detecting the gas surge or that some piece of equipment interfered with or impeded the ability of the ram, like a sliding steel door, to close. This should not have occurred, and can only be classified as some human error. But it is premature to judge why the blowout preventer did not work.
First, the President and the federal government, Gulf Coast states, and all participants in the offshore industry should deploy resources necessary to contain the spill.
Second, BP, Transocean, and others should put information in the public domain that is relative and updated periodically, explaining the various plans which have been put in place to shut of the flow of oil beneath the ocean. In the last couple of days (May 2-3), there has been a freer flow of information concerning contingency planning, and that is welcome.
Third, as much information as possible should be made public concerning what happened, and an emergency group of the National Petroleum Council should assemble to report on what changes, if any, should occur regarding current ongoing offshore
drilling programs. Though incidents such as this may cause members of public to view any industry participant with suspicion, the world’s greatest source of expertise on these issues can be found within the U.S. industry, both the oil and gas producers, and those who provide assets and services to the industry. I worked with the National Petroleum Council when I was Deputy Secretary of Energy and currently serve as a member. This group first began providing advice to the President during World War II on matters essential to the energy which fueled our war time effort, and historically has taken its public policy responsibilities to the nation very seriously. Of course, federal and state regulators could accept or reject recommendations from this group.
Fourth, in parallel there should be a blue ribbon group examining procedures for dealing with blowouts in the deep offshore environment, which should make recommendations concerning the risks and procedures to minimize risks going forward. A good model might be the panel headed by former Secretary of State James Baker which examined, and was highly critical of, BP’s safety practices for refineries following the 2005 explosion which claimed 15 lives.
The importance of safe offshore drilling
The safe development of deep water oil and gas resources, with clear and strict environmental safeguards, are essential to maintaining secure and affordable energy supplies for our nation.
For decades I have strongly advocated stronger standards for the use of petroleum-based transportation fuels as a way to maintain affordable energy prices and reduce dependence on imports. But this should not be considered as an alternative to new oil supplies. Without new drilling for petroleum, the world’s oil production would shrink quickly and dramatically during the next ten years. We would lose even more control over our energy supply and prices for all consumers everywhere would skyrocket.
It is important that we know both the causes and means to prevent this kind of disaster as quickly as possible. We cannot afford an energy policy that is based on either wishful thinking or irrational fear. Claims by those in public office or the industry that somehow this tragedy was unavoidable or some “act of God” are not helpful to reasoned discussion.
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