Gulf Spill Report: A Preventable Disaster

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 @ 05:01 PM gHale

The failed Deepwater Horizon oil rig relied too heavily on engineers following complex data for long periods of time, instead of providing automatic warning alerts.

That is just one of the findings of the Oil Spill Commission, created by President Obama to investigate the Gulf of Mexico disaster. The report, released today, also criticized decisions to ignore cement modeling tests, as well as other cementing and management strategies.

The April 20 explosion on the rig was the result of huge pressure of dangerous hydrocarbons, or kick, built up in the well. Eleven people died in the accident, and over the following months millions of barrels of oil flowed into the sea until workers capped the well.

The data was there in front of personnel monitoring systems, but for various reasons workers did not follow through on the readings, according to the report.

In the future, the instrumentation and displays used for well monitoring must improve, the report said. There is no apparent reason why more sophisticated, automated alarms and algorithms cannot be a part of the system to alert the driller and mud logger when anomalies arise.

The drilling industry, much less the world fell into a false sense of security when it comes to deep water drilling.

In the years before the Macondo blowout, neither industry nor government adequately addressed risks, according to the report. Investments in safety, containment, and response equipment and practices failed to keep pace with the rapid move into deepwater drilling. Absent major crises, and given the remarkable financial returns available from deepwater reserves, the business culture succumbed to a false sense of security. The Deepwater Horizon disaster exhibits the costs of a culture of complacency, the report said.

The commission said there was no excuse for drilling companies to be relying on engineers to spot small changes in data — which could lead to severe consequences — when the individuals “sit for 12 hours at a time in front of these displays.”

BP used the Halliburton Sperry Sun system and the HiTec system from rig owner Transocean for monitoring and these had provided the right data to demonstrate a kick or dangerous rise in pressure was occurring.

But the commission said it was “no longer acceptable” for oil companies to rely on a system that “requires the right person to be looking at the right data at the right time, and then to understand its significance in spite of simultaneous activities and other monitoring responsibilities.”

The management style was also criticized, as engineers worked long days handling complex data and technology. In recent weeks, a key engineer on the rig said in testimony that he had stepped away from his safety monitor for a brief cigarette break, and that at this moment he missed the complex warning signs on screen.

The report said BP may have ignored the results of the Halliburton OptiCem cement modeling software, which had stated the well needed more stabilizers, called centralizers, to support the underwater cement work.

BP was not the only company facing blame as Halliburton, the cement contractor, also took a hit for possibly failing to share data with BP from tests on its cement slurry mix. Its early tests may have shown the mix was not stable, but it still continued the cement job, according to the report.

Click here for the commission’s full report.