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Gavels In the Gulf: The BP Trial - Week 4 In Review

Contributor: Derek Park
Posted: 03/25/2013
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Transocean’s Turn in New Orleans

The trial reached its first milestone this week when the plaintiffs rested their case after three and a half weeks of testimony. No doubt to their great relief, MI Swaco, who supplied the drilling fluids for the well, were able to establish that no case had been made against them and were released by the judge.

The spotlight has shifted to Transocean and for most of the week their lawyers tried to show that they had world class systems in place to manage their operations in general, and HSE capability in particular.

The week opened, however, with the continuing cross examination of the plaintiff’s expert witness on marine operations. At the end of last week he had painted a pretty grim picture of the state of the Deepwater Horizon, and had been especially critical of the external audits and inspections which had been done. He was also highly critical of the command structure, particularly with regard to the emergency roles of the captain and the OIM. It was generally accepted on all sides that the captain had waited for word from the OIM before attempting an emergency disconnect, and this is becoming a salient feature of the trial.

RELATED: Oil & Gas Special Report: Macondo Deepwater Horizon "Never Say Never Again"

Should he have waited? Was it better to give the drill floor more time or was the drill floor still functional in those key minutes after the explosion?

And so we moved into Transocean’s own case. It should be remembered that there are actually two trials happening at the same time here. Transocean are being sued by the US government and by the Plaintiffs (basically the public who suffered the effects of the disaster) while at the same time they are trying to offload some of the blame onto BP, Cameron and Halliburton. So their lawyers tend to look in several directions with several pairs of eyes a piece.

Drilling

Transocean’s first witness was an expert in drilling operations. The drill crew were vastly experienced and amongst the best in the business and had already dealt with a kick earlier in the well's life. The ultimate authority on the rig was BP but the drill crew had responsibility for the drilling operations including continuous monitoring and control of the well.

It seems to be accepted that the negative test was a failure and that there is no explanation as to why it was considered a success when there was 1400 psi on the drill pipe. Crucially though, BP, both offshore and onshore, were aware of the anomaly and it was their decision to move on to the next phase and unload the well.

As this operation progressed the pumps were switched off for a sheen test, prior to overboard dumping of the spacer. It is accepted that at this point a pressure rise should have been detected.

Later pressure anomalies were probably spotted by the driller and there is evidence of a conversation about needing to circulate out the well. However, the facts are that the well was not shut in and Transocean accepted that the crew should have taken action at that point and called a time out. They perhaps misinterpreted what they were seeing and things moved pretty rapidly from then on.

As things got out of control, the focus switches to the diverter and the fact that it was lined up to the mud/gas separator instead of overboard. That was BP’s call, in line with their environmental policy, but could an initial overboard dump have bought some time? There is conflicting evidence as to whether the crew managed to get the flow overboard in the last minutes but it was clearly too late by then.

Transocean maintain that it was right for the captain to wait for the OIM before activating the emergency disconnect sequence. They maintain that the drill crew were dealing with the situation and sequencing the BOP, and that this was a better option than an immediate disconnect. Transocean claim the key factor is the communication between the bridge and the driller rather than the absolute level of authority between the captain and the OIM.

Was the crew distracted? Was there too much other activity on the rig at the time? Is it good practice to unload a well and at the same time carry out activities in support of moving the rig to the next location?

The plaintiffs’ maintain that the job was being pushed along too fast. Was the main driver to get done and get the rig onto the next job at minimum cost? These are things the court will decide....

Transocean CEO

I have so far avoided identifying the individuals involved in the trial but Steve Newman, Transocean CEO, is a public figure.

He accepted that Transocean were at fault regarding the interpretation of the negative pressure test. He pointed out that BP was responsible for the test procedure, for the final determination that the test was a success, and crucially for the decision to ‘move on’ to the next phase of the job. He also acknowledged that Transocean were at fault in their monitoring and control of the well. These liabilities form part of other legal proceedings.

LEARN MORE: Safety First - A Process Safety Primer

He explained Transocean’s commitment to process safety and drew the distinction between their responsibilities for rig operations and BP’s wider responsibility for the well and impacts of the well on the rig.

The rig fleet had suffered four fatal accidents in 2009 and so they did a shutdown for safety across the fleet and also commissioned Lloyds to do a full report on the state of the SMS. Good leadership, including the OIM position, had been highlighted and it was also reported that everyone felt they could raise safety concerns. There were areas for improvement and these were being implemented. Comments such as ‘they don’t know what they don’t know’ applied more to inexperienced hands who needed coaching rather than to core and experienced personnel.

On cross examination the plaintiffs highlighted not only the fatalities but also six riser unloading events in 2009. Surely Transocean should have done more than order up a report from Lloyds? An opportunity had been missed to improve well control and diverter procedures in the run up to Macondo and instead Transocean had concentrated on personal safety issues. There were also questions about the applicability and primacy of the BP and Transocean safety management systems.

BOP Sequencing and Emergency Disconnect

We heard from another expert witness on the BOP, this time called by Transocean.

In two earlier testimonies, other experts had shown how a flat battery and a mis-wired solenoid on the control pods had prevented the BOPs from activating in AMF or ‘dead man’ mode immediately after the explosion. Activation had only been achieved two days later by ROV, but this still failed to seal the well because the drill pipe was being pulled off centre by the drifting rig and the BSRs couldn’t shear an off-centre pipe. So that’s one theory....

Here’s Transocean’s view: Despite the flat battery and the mis-wired solenoid the AMF did fire at the time of the incident but was unsuccessful because the pipe was off centre. They showed test results which claimed to prove it. However, in their view the pipe deflection was the result of massive fluid flow as the well blew, causing the pipe to helically buckle and go off-centre in the BOP.

Two very different scenarios and again the court will decide. Big implications for Transocean of course. They claim that the AMF function did operate but the well conditions prevented full shearing and sealing at the time of the disaster. That is a long way from everyone else’s view that the BOP failed principally because of lack of maintenance and wasn’t fired until two days later by ROV. Hours of testimony here to delight the metallurgists and the forensic scientists!

Cement Tests

In the middle of the Transocean testimony and for reasons of witness availability, the court returned to the issue of cement testing. The witness was Halliburton’s onshore laboratory manager and I don’t think we are much the wiser after many hours of cross examination. There are multiple versions of events involving different samples, from different sources both before and after the event. The key questions seem to be:

  • Was the actual cement used in the Macondo well tested before it was pumped? There seems no disagreement that it was cement originally blended for a previous well and contained defoamer. But were the effects of that defoamer fully understood, particularly with regard to foam stability, transitioning time and gel strength?
  • After the event, did Halliburton hold back samples of the cement from the US authorities who had subpoenaed all Macondo material? Did they do tests and destroy the results? It is developing into a bit of a ‘whodunnit’ and the judge eventually wrapped up the debate before the lawyers had finished.

Yet again the court will have to decide....

So a week full of mind numbing detail. Going through the hours of transcripts I have to feel sorry for the witnesses whoever they represent. Hours on end of quick-fire questions from hotshot lawyers who flash documents on the screen with frightening alacrity.

Quick question – Yes or No – next document – Quick Question – Yes or No - and so on.

One lawyer sits down and another bounces up fresh and rehearsed, with his or her rapid questions and clips from multiple documents.

Believe me, don’t go there. Get your SMS systems right, make sure they are used and keep yourself out of court!

Not much this week for the alternative flow theorists – watch out next week though! I’m almost snow-blind from the amount of paper I've had to glance over and am off for a lie down!

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Contributor: Derek Park