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Gavels In the Gulf: The BP Trial - Week 2 In Review

Contributor: Derek Park
Posted: 03/11/2013
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As I followed the second week of the trial last week I was struck more by what was agreed rather than by what was in dispute. As the court examined the facts of the case from well design to the blow out, there was surprisingly little dispute about what happened and perhaps even about who knew what was happening. This trial will hinge on who was responsible for the various shortcomings and more crucially what they did about them. For me though the overwhelming question is still why?

The plaintiffs, essentially the US government and those that suffered the environmental consequences of the disaster, called a string of witnesses as they tried to establish that BP and its contractors showed ‘willful misconduct’ and ‘gross negligence’ in the way they managed the Macondo well. We heard from an expert geologist that the sands in the Mississippi Canyon area are especially fragile and that this might have been underestimated in the design of the well. But was it beyond current ‘norms’ and outside a safe operating envelope? BP said no.

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Much of what we heard concerned cementation. Expert testimony claimed that the cement job was poorly designed and poorly executed. The cement was leftover from a previous job and contained a defoaming agent, not the best of choices given that, because of the fragility of the Macondo formation, foam cement was specified.

There was little dispute about what cement recipe was used but there were hours of evidence about cement testing. Were the correct tests done? Did Halliburton inform BP of the results and did they both act correctly on the basis of these test results? The plaintiffs claimed that the ‘second hand’ cement was used purely to save a trivial amount of money but it turned out that BP would have been credited with its value against a fresh batch so where was the incentive?

Aside from the cement chemistry, and perhaps more crucially, the expert was highly critical of the cementation placement. First issue was the failure to carry out a complete ‘bottoms up’ prior to pumping cement and all the implications of that for cement contamination. Again, there was no dispute that a full bottoms up was not done, but BP maintained that there was enough circulation to have cleaned out the critical parts of the well and even though this is not best practice, it is not unknown, especially when dealing with fragile formations.

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Much harder for BP to deal with though was the question of centralisation. In a nutshell the recommended number of centralisers for this well was 21 and only 6 were run with all the connotations for cement channelling etc. BP countered by explaining they were balancing the risk of centralisers damaging the wellhead as they passed through, and cited the wellhead manufacturers recommendation that they should not be run at all. That begs a lot more questions beyond what the court heard last week!

So the cement was pumped and after some discussion about the setting time, it was tested. It is widely accepted that the negative pressure test procedure was at fault and even more crucially that this test was misinterpreted. Expert testimony claimed that this amounted to a ‘gross and extreme departure from good oilfield practice’. It was not a grey area; there was 1400psi on the drill pipe when there should have been zero, end of story. But the test was accepted as being good by both BP and Transocean.

As I said earlier, the big question which remains unanswered is why? We may never know the answer to that, not least because some of the key people involved in the decision lost their lives in the disaster. They must have known what the consequences were likely to be and that they were heading for extreme and personal danger, so why?

Why?

If the operation had been stopped there and then in the light of such stark evidence then nothing else would have happened. A bad cement job doesn’t equate to a blowout so why did it in this case? This answer to this question pivots on the relationship between BP and Transocean and their respective responsibilities. The court will have to decide where that responsibility lies, not only with regard to the negative test, but with regard to most of what followed.

The court heard that after the test, the crew started to unload the well and that hydrocarbons started to flow; again no dispute about that. Things started to move fast but the situation could still have been saved had the BOP been closed before hydrocarbons got to the riser. There was no dispute that the driller has the primary responsibility for spotting the flow but he should have been helped by information from others, notably the mud logger. But were they distracted by other operations, some of them associated with temporary abandonment and getting the rig off location as soon as possible?

During the displacement the pumps were stopped for a sheen test and the well pressure continued to rise? Who should have spotted that? The facts are that nobody did. Should the BP well site leader have spotted the problem? Given that the negative pressure test was seen to be good then operations in many respects were ‘normal’ and the court heard that he has other duties and certainly his job is not to ride shotgun on the driller 24/7. The senior toolpusher was also going about his routine business. By the time he heard there was a problem all he could do was off the rig, stopping only to help injured crew mates.

So that leaves the BOP. Cameron emphasised that the equipment is a ‘blow out preventer’ not a ‘blow out stopper’ and by the time it was used it was already too late. The court heard that there were serious shortcomings in the maintenance, testing and certification regimes of the BOP, adding to earlier general criticism of maintenance on board ‘Deepwater Horizon’.

Forensic examination of the recovered equipment revealed a flat battery on one pod and an incorrectly wired solenoid on the other. Also modifications carried out had reduced the capability of the BOP to handle the well pressure and its ability to shear pipe. Improvements available from Cameron, perhaps most notably a system to monitor battery voltage, had not been incorporated. The court was told that this amounted to a failure of those involved to use ‘the best available and safest technology’ on this most crucial piece of oilfield equipment.

As I said after week 1, the trial is somewhat paradoxical. We heard some graphic testimony this week from the Transocean senior pusher who was on board at the time and also from an off duty BP well site leader. They characterised what we had expected. A hard working, hard nosed crew, BP and contractors, all getting along fairly well and working together to get the job done in difficult conditions. Of all people they knew what the personal consequences could be if they got it wrong, and tragically for some of them that is what transpired.

At the corporate level though, the companies involved are trying hard to saddle each other with the blame. BP is trying to show that it largely discharged its responsibilities by hiring world class contractors and at the same time trying to show that they were badly let down by those same contractors. It’s a fine line.

Here we go – round 3!

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Contributor: Derek Park