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Gavels In the Gulf: The BP Trial - Week 3 In Review

Derek Park
Contributor: Derek Park
Posted: 03/18/2013

The trial really got into the technical details this week. Witnesses testified in four key areas: BOP, cementation, mud logging and the condition and organisation of the ‘Deepwater Horizon’ itself.

BOP

The plaintiffs called a second expert witness in a week regarding the BOP. This time the court heard about the operation of the equipment and the importance of selecting the sequence of the various elements in an emergency. Nobody doubts that the BOP failed to function as it should but there was much testimony about whether the BOP was configured correctly. Was the best sequencing initially programmed or selected as events unfolded? Some key issues raised included whether the casing should have been cut before the blind shear rams were activated in the EDS sequencing, and also about the sequencing of the AMF and auto shear functions.

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The court was also shown that BOP elements had been modified to provide a test function and that the lower annular had been reconfigured to allow pipe stripping. Pipe had also been stripped through the upper annular in the course of drilling the well.

Should the BOP have been upgraded to include the ‘double V’ type of rams, and is the fact that this wasn’t done a failure to use ‘best available and safest technology’? Or are such rams unsuitable for the harsher fluid regimes of exploration wells and only suitable for more benign workover applications?

There was no acoustic trigger fitted which would have given an additional means of operation once the MUX cables were severed. An acoustic trigger is not made mandatory by the US authorities but is required in most other areas.

It was said that the predicted pressures for the Macondo well exceeded the capabilities of the BOP and there followed much debate about the calculation of MAWP. Is that Maximum Allowable Wellhead Pressure or Maximum Anticipated Wellhead Pressure, and in any case does it anticipate the well full of gas or a 50% oil/gas mixture?

The Cameron lawyer established that no attempt was made to activate the BOP until after the blowout which builds on their position that they supplied a ‘blow out preventer’ not a ‘blow out stopper’. It was also established that the customer is responsible for the configuration, programming and maintenance of the BOP.

Cement

The plaintiffs called two senior Halliburton witnesses regarding cementation. Initial exchanges highlighted the fact that Halliburton did not have basis of design (BOD) or management of change (MOC) procedures as stipulated in the contract with BP. The cement used was ‘left over’ from the previous well and contained de-foaming agent, obviously not the best of choices for the foam cement job that was subsequently pumped. The use of left over cement allowed the plaintiffs to once again allege that the well was drilled on the cheap.

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The main debate though was around the testing that had been done on the dry mix and the slurry actually used on the well. Amongst hours of testimony, the questions hinged on what testing was actually done before and after the incident. Correspondence between Halliburton and BP seems to show that last minute changes in the amount of retarder meant that it was impossible to have tested the actual mix used. Hence the Court’s interest in MOC procedures. Evidence regarding the stability of the foam and the strength of the cured cement could be key to the outcome of the trial.

The testing done after the event is even more confusing. Any remaining samples of the cement were seized by the US authorities in the days after the disaster. There were allegations though that Halliburton did some tests on replica samples and the results of these tests were not recorded or, perhaps, even destroyed. There were spats between lawyers about ‘theatrics’ in front of the Press regarding the destruction of evidence. Halliburton did concede though that this could have happened but the facts did not come to light until 2012. This one will run and run....

The court also heard about the lack of centralisers and the placement of the cement and the possibility of channelling. Interestingly, it was the BP lawyers who raised questions about possible alternative flow paths – ‘does Halliburton believe that the flow path was up the annulus, or up the back side or outside of the production casing?’ Halliburton, in their presentation to Congress after the disaster, had raised the possibility of annular flow but said that at that time there was not much information. In Court they said that later evidence following the well kill has led them to believe that flow had in fact been via the casing and not the annulus. Again there is much more to come on this.

Mud Logging

Testimony from those that were actually on board at the time of the disaster is always compelling, and the court heard from the on duty mud logger. The testimony covered the vital hours from the acceptance of the negative pressure test to the blow out itself. The mud logger provides the vital "second set of eyes" to the driller and it has been alleged that he missed indications of a kick. There was a lot going on at the time, however, and some of the more obvious indicators were either not available to him or, at best, obscured. For example:

  • The seawater being used to displace the well was being taken directly from the sea chest and not via a pit
  • The returning mud was being discharged to a boat and this configuration bypassed the mud logger’s flow sensor
  • Sand traps were being cleaned and pumped out
  • Crane operations were affecting the pit level measurements.

All this made it very difficult to observe the ‘gold standard’ for kick detection: the monitoring of flow in, flow out and pit volume. There were signs that perhaps should have been picked up, most notably a stand pipe pressure increase with the pumps switched off for a sheen test, prior to dumping the spacer overboard.

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But it is hard not to conclude that ‘best practice’ would have been to suspend all other operations during the critical unloading of such a problem well. The first indication for the mud logger was a smell of gas and a sound ‘like heavy rain’ as mud rained down on his shack.

Harrowing testimony followed of how he got himself, and others, off the rig.

Deepwater Horizon

The final witness of the week was an expert on marine operations, maintenance and classification. The testimony was pretty clear and needs little elaboration. The rig was not in compliance with the ISM code, the international code covering the safe operation of ships and pollution prevention. He cited numerous failings in the maintenance of vital equipment throughout the rig and particularly highlighted the failure of Transocean Management to address the issues.

The maintenance regime was almost ineffectual, with endemic backlogs of critical work, often awaiting the delivery of spares. Vital equipment was beyond OEM recommended service or recertification times. The vessel had never been dry-docked despite a five year requirement under the code. The vessel was basically unseaworthy according to the testimony and this added up to ‘reckless neglect’ on behalf of Transocean.

Another violation of the code was the ambiguous command structure, most notably the dual responsibilities of the Master and OIM. It was said that a dynamically positioned MODU is always a vessel underway and at no time should the Master defer to anyone. Plaintiffs seized on the OIM’s role being driven by commercial considerations rather than safety. This really came to a head when at the height of the emergency, the Master awaited the OIM before giving permission to perform an emergency disconnect to allow the rig to drift off the burning well.

In cross examination, the Transocean lawyers showed a long list of audits and inspections going back throughout the life of the rig from DNV, ABS, US Coast Guard and others. The expert witness basically said these audits were superficial and in some cases the auditors went around in blinkers. Pretty strong stuff with suggestions that statutory audits etc. are, at best, cursory, and, at worst, completely ineffective. Much more to come as this cross examination continues into week four…..

So we had a week packed with detail, too much to cover in this short piece. Significantly though we continued to see the service companies reinforcing their silos and saying ‘we did what we were asked to do’. BP continues to emphasise that they hired the best and deserved better than what they got. Two key things are starting to emerge and will be watched with interest

i) BP lawyers are working hard to establish that the US authorities knew all about the difficulties likely to be encountered and had approved much of the activity. For example, the MMS approved the BOP for Macondo.

ii) The ‘alternative flow path’ theories are beginning to come out. This could of course move the whole thing into a completely different place. Is it a conventional bad cement job which was missed? Or are the causes lying literally much deeper in the formation?

The plot will thicken in Week 4....

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Derek Park
Contributor: Derek Park
Posted: 03/18/2013

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