Documents Show Early Worries About Safety of Rig
The Deepwater Horizon rig last month.
By IAN URBINA Published: May 29, 2010
WASHINGTON — Internal documents from BP show that there were serious problems and safety concerns with the Deepwater Horizon rig far earlier than those the company described to Congress last week.
The problems involved the well casing and the blowout preventer, which are considered critical pieces in the chain of events that led to the disaster on the rig.
The documents show that in March, after several weeks of problems on the rig, BP was struggling with a loss of “well control.” And as far back as 11 months ago, it was concerned about the well casing and the blowout preventer.
On June 22, for example, BP engineers expressed concerns that the metal casing the company wanted to use might collapse under high pressure.
“This would certainly be a worst-case scenario,” Mark E. Hafle, a senior drilling engineer at BP, warned in an internal report. “However, I have seen it happen so know it can occur.”
The company went ahead with the casing, but only after getting special permission from BP colleagues because it violated the company’s safety policies and design standards. The internal reports do not explain why the company allowed for an exception. BP documents released last week to The Times revealed that company officials knew the casing was the riskier of two options.
Though his report indicates that the company was aware of certain risks and that it made the exception, Mr. Hafle, testifying before a panel on Friday in Louisiana about the cause of the rig disaster, rejected the notion that the company had taken risks.
“Nobody believed there was going to be a safety issue,” Mr. Hafle told a six-member panel of Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service officials.
“All the risks had been addressed, all the concerns had been addressed, and we had a model that suggested if executed properly we would have a successful job,” he said.
Mr. Hafle, asked for comment by a reporter after his testimony Friday about the internal report, declined to answer questions.
BP’s concerns about the casing did not go away after Mr. Hafle’s 2009 report.
In April of this year, BP engineers concluded that the casing was “unlikely to be a successful cement job,” according to a document, referring to how the casing would be sealed to prevent gases from escaping up the well.
The document also says that the plan for casing the well is “unable to fulfill M.M.S. regulations,” referring to the Minerals Management Service.
A second version of the same document says “It is possible to obtain a successful cement job” and “It is possible to fulfill M.M.S. regulations.”
Andrew Gowers, a BP spokesman, said the second document was produced after further testing had been done.
On Tuesday Congress released a memorandum with preliminary findings from BP’s internal investigation, which indicated that there were warning signs immediately before the explosion on April 20, including equipment readings suggesting that gas was bubbling into the well, a potential sign of an impending blowout.
A parade of witnesses at hearings last week told about bad decisions and cut corners in the days and hours before the explosion of the rig, but BP’s internal documents provide a clearer picture of when company and federal officials saw problems emerging.
In addition to focusing on the casing, investigators are also focusing on the blowout preventer, a fail-safe device that was supposed to slice through a drill pipe in a last-ditch effort to close off the well when the disaster struck. The blowout preventer did not work, which is one of the reasons oil has continued to spill into the gulf, though the reason it failed remains unclear.
Federal drilling records and well reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and BP’s internal documents, including more than 50,000 pages of company e-mail messages, inspection reports, engineering studies and other company records obtained by The Times from Congressional investigators, shed new light on the extent and timing of problems with the blowout preventer and the casing long before the explosion.
Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, declined to answer questions about the casings, the blowout preventer and regulators’ oversight of the rig because those matters are part of a continuing investigation.
The documents show that in March, after problems on the rig that included drilling mud falling into the formation, sudden gas releases known as “kicks” and a pipe falling into the well, BP officials informed federal regulators that they were struggling with a loss of “well control.”
On at least three occasions, BP records indicate, the blowout preventer was leaking fluid, which the manufacturer of the device has said limits its ability to operate properly.
“The most important thing at a time like this is to stop everything and get the operation under control,” said Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, Austin, offering his assessment about the documents.
He added that he was surprised that regulators and company officials did not commence a review of whether drilling should continue after the well was brought under control.
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After informing regulators of their struggles, company officials asked for permission to delay their federally mandated test of the blowout preventer, which is supposed to occur every two weeks, until the problems were resolved, BP documents say.
At first, the minerals agency declined.
“Sorry, we cannot grant a departure on the B.O.P. test further than when you get the well under control,” wrote Frank Patton, a minerals agency official. But BP officials pressed harder, citing “major concerns” about doing the test the next day. And by 10:58 p.m., David Trocquet, another M.M.S. official, acquiesced.
“After further consideration,” Mr. Trocquet wrote, “an extension is approved to delay the B.O.P. test until the lower cement plug is set.”
When the blowout preventer was eventually tested again, it was tested at a lower pressure — 6,500 pounds per square inch — than the 10,000-pounds-per-square-inch tests used on the device before the delay. It tested at this lower pressure until the explosion.
A review of Minerals Management Service’s data of all B.O.P. tests done in deep water in the Gulf of Mexico for five years shows B.O.P. tests rarely dropped so sharply, and, in general, either continued at the same threshold or were done at increasing levels.
The manufacturer of the blowout preventer, Cameron, declined to say what the appropriate testing pressure was for the device.
In an e-mail message, Mr. Gowers of BP wrote that until their investigation was complete, it was premature to answer questions about the casings or the blowout preventer.
Even though the documents asking regulators about testing the blowout preventer are from BP, Mr. Gowers said that any questions regarding the device should be directed to Transocean, which owns the rig and, he said, was responsible for maintenance and testing of the device. Transocean officials declined to comment.
Bob Sherrill, an expert on blowout preventers and the owner of Blackwater Subsea, an engineering consulting firm, said the conditions on the rig in February and March and the language used by the operator referring to a loss of well control “sounds like they were facing a blowout scenario.”
Mr. Sherrill said federal regulators made the right call in delaying the blowout test, because doing a test before the well is stable risks gas kicks. But once the well was stable, he added, it would have made sense for regulators to investigate the problems further.
In April, the month the rig exploded, workers encountered obstructions in the well. Most of the problems were conveyed to federal regulators, according to federal records. Many of the incidents required that BP get a permit for a new tactic for dealing with the problem.
One of the final indications of such problems was an April 15 request for a permit to revise its plan to deal with a blockage, according to federal documents obtained from Congress by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group.
In the documents, company officials apologized to federal regulators for not having mentioned the type of casing they were using earlier, adding that they had “inadvertently” failed to include it. In the permit request, they did not disclose BP’s own internal concerns about the design of the casing.
Less than 10 minutes after the request was submitted, federal regulators approved the permit.
Robbie Brown contributed reporting from Kenner, La., and Andy Lehren from New York.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 30, 2010, on page A1 of the New York edition.
Galveston Daily News
Letters to the Editor
May 28, 2010
How Would We Deal With An Oil Spill Here?
Do we need an Ike dike, or a BP dike?
I watch in misery as I see what is happening to our kind neighbors to the east of us, and think to myself, there, but for the grace of God, go we.
All that would have to happen is a change in wind pattern or weather pattern and BP’s God-awful mess could be at our doorsteps in a minute.
What, if any, is the contingency plan to keep that BP oil from getting into Galveston Bay and all its estuaries, if it heads our way? Will the ship channel and cuts be closed to seal off the bay?
Our beaches would be vulnerable, too. What is the contingency plan to keep the BP oil off our beaches from High Island to Corpus Christi and beyond, if the oil were to come our way?
If an oil dispersant is used, how would we keep that from coming into Galveston Bay, and what harm is it to humans and wildlife, including fish?
These are just a few of many questions I would like answered before the BP oil slick, or any oil slick, is seen off our coast, not after it comes ashore.
Terry Singeltary Sr. Bacliff
Front Page May 27, 2010
STATE OF EMERGENCY
Oil throws entirely new twist into storm anxiety
Storm surge might deposit black goo on area shores
The 2010 hurricane season begins Tuesday. Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach residents know too well it is time to get prepared with home reinforcements, evacuation plans and stockpiles of water and non-perishable food items.
But local residents have never gone into a hurricane season with a catastrophic oil spill threatening the area’s pristine beaches and shores. The spill could grow exponentially more disastrous if the approaching hurricane season whips up massive, black waves and inundates beaches and coastal areas with oily water and debris.
“Hurricanes are bad,” said Buck Lee, Executive Director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority. “Hurricanes with oil are even worse.”
With just five days remaining until the Atlantic hurricane season, odds are more than 40 percent that a big storm could cross the giant spill spewing from beneath a ruptured well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.
Five weeks ago on April 20, a deadly blast rocked the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil rig located about 50 miles southeast of New Orleans, killing 11 workers and leaving its uncontrolled well to gush millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.
The last thing anyone in this area wants is a hurricane to make landfall here, especially storms as strong as virtual-Category 4 Ivan in 2004 and Category 3 Dennis in 2005. Ivan’s surge six years ago pushed water far inland into the rivers of the two-county Bay area. Water several feet deep covered Pensacola Beach for several hours, and Soundside Drive residences in south Santa Rosa County were swamped as well.
“A direct hit would not only mess up Pensacola Beach, but all of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties,” Lee said. “Remember, folks had water in their homes that lived just off Escambia Bay. Not only would there be water in their homes, there could be a touch of oil in there, too. We don’t know.”
In April, forecasters at Colorado State University said there was a 44 percent chance a hurricane would enter the Gulf of Mexico in the 2010 season, far greater than the 30 percent historic average. Some experts say early conditions are very similar to those that precipitated the terrible 2004 season.
“High winds may distribute oil over a wide area,” National Hurricane Center meteorologist Dennis Feltgen said. “Storm surges might carry oil inland, mixed with hurricane debris.”
Should a hurricane pass to the west of the main oil slick, areas of the Gulf in the right, northeast quadrant of the storm would be most vulnerable to wind and surge. Mix in millions of gallons of oil, and the consequences are almost unfathomable.
“On the flip side,” Lee said, “if a hurricane hit to the east of us, let’s say Fort Walton Beach or Panama City, then the counterclockwise wind would push the oil away from us. So it all depends on which side of the hurricane we’re on, if we have one.”
This year’s hurricane season – June 1 to Nov. 30 – is expected to be above average with 15 tropical storms of which eight could be hurricanes. Forecasters say a season with multiple storms could send oil farther inland.
“To think a storm surge could resuscitate a huge sum of oil (from the deep) and deposit it on land is truly catastrophic,” said Joe Jaworski, Mayor of Galveston, Texas, which was slammed by Hurricane Ike in 2008.
That storm caused coastal flooding on Pensacola Beach and parts of the Fairpoint Peninsula as it passed from east to west about 100 miles south of Pensacola Beach.
Last year, only two named tropical systems – Claudette and Ida – made landfall in the U.S., and both came ashore within 50 miles of Gulf Breeze, doing minimal damage.
Locally, residents should take note that several changes have been made regarding the 2010 hurricane season. These changes include hurricane classifications, evacuation zones and hurricane forecast information.
When it comes to hurricanes, it is important to understand that wind speed is not the only factor. Now, a number of factors will be considered when looking at evacuations; including the size of the storm, speed the storm is moving, wind speed and the overall storm surge.
Evacuation notification is not an exact science, and keeping your safety in mind, evacuation zones have been updated using storm surge information and the latest Light Detection and Ranging or LIDAR data collected during the 2009 hurricane evacuation study. The evacuation zones will now be identified using the letters A through E, instead of the storm category numbers of 1 through 5 that were previously used.
To find out how the evacuation zones will affect you, read pages 25 and 26 of the 2010 Santa Rosa County disaster guide or enter your home or business address on the interactive map found at www.santarosa. fl.gov/gis.
The Saffir-Simpson scale has also been updated for the 2010 hurricane season. In the past, the Saffir-Simpson scale was categorized by wind speed and storm surge; beginning this year, the hurricane categories will only reflect wind speed. This change was made due to the unreliability of predicting surge in relation to wind speed. Familiarize yourself with the new Saffir-Simpson scale as the new classifications might alter your plans.
Additionally, the National Weather Service has implemented a few changes in the way it provides hurricane forecast information. Residents will now be notified of tropical storm and hurricane watches 12 hours earlier than in previous years, within 48 hours of possible hurricane or tropical storm conditions may affect our area. Hurricane or tropical storm warnings are also now issued within 36 hours of a possible storm impact.
Other changes have been implemented as well, and can be viewed at www.srh.noaa. gov/mob.
HURRICANE SEASON PREPARATION
By following these simple steps, citizens can save lives, money, damage and distress:
¦ Make a family plan.
¦ Include in your plan how to care for family or friends with special needs and your pets.
¦ Set up an out-of-town contact for your family members to call in case you are separated.
¦ Evaluate your home and surroundings. Trim hazardous tree limbs and have a plan to secure items that could become deadly missiles in a storm.
¦ Harden and prepare your home with proper bracing and shutters.
¦ Make a disaster kit that has at least three days of drinking water and non-perishable food for each person and pet, vital prescription drugs, and any needed baby supplies.
¦ Also, include a flashlight, radio, extra batteries and cash. Prepare this kit ahead of time, and be sure to check your disaster kits for expired items.
¦ Equip your home and office with a NOAA weather radio. It just might save your life.
Citizens can automatically receive breaking news alerts from Santa Rosa County Emergency Management via e-mail or text message. Residents can sign up for the alert service or make changes in their current subscription online at
For more information, pick up the new 2010 disaster guide, which includes a shopping checklist, updated hurricane evacuation zones and the new hurricane classifications. You can find this free guide at county offices, libraries, major retailers in the county, or online at
www.santarosa.fl.gov, under the emergency management button.
– Santa Rosa County Emergency Management
2010 HURRICANE NAMES
Alex Fiona Karl Paula Bonnie Gaston Lisa Richard Colin Hermine Matthew Shary Danielle Igor Nicole Tomas Earl Julia Otto Virginie Walter
This is the same list used in the 2004 season with the exception of Colin, Fiona, Igor and Julia, which replaced the names of the four major hurricanes that made landfall in Florida in 2004: Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne, respectively.
UPDATE 1-Obama aide says US oil spill could last until August
Sun May 30, 2010 11:14am EDT
WASHINGTON May 30 (Reuters) - Oil could gush into the Gulf of Mexico from the BP BP.L. rig until August and the U.S. government is "preparing for the worst," Carol Browner, President Barack Obama's top adviser on energy and climate change, said on Sunday.
Speaking on the CBS TV show "Face The Nation," Browner said: "There could be oil coming up till August when the relief wells are done."
She said BP's latest effort to try to capture and contain oil would not provide a permanent solution or prevent some oil escaping into the sea even if the maneuver succeeded.
"We are prepared for the worst. We have been prepared from the beginning," she added. (Reporting by Alan Elsner, editing by Vicki Allen)
Terry S. Singeltary Sr.
P.O. Box 42
Bacliff, Texas USA 77518