On April 20 2010 a blowout occurred on the semi-submersible Deepwater Horizon which had just completed a well for BP in the Gulf of Mexico. 11 of the personnel on board died in the subsequent explosion and the remaining crew members evacuated by lifeboat, liferaft and by jumping into the sea. After a couple of days the still burning rig sank in 5000 feet (1524 metres) of water with the riser still attached and the well continued to belch forth thousands of barrels of crude oil per day into the Gulf. The time taken to control the well is measured in months, and during this time a number of investigations took place including one by BP, the operator, one by the US Coast Guard and one termed as “The President’s Investigation”. By enrolling with the Coast Guard as a journalist I was able to follow the progess of the event and the investigation, and as a result compiled a commentary on my old website and then a section of my book “A Catalogue of Disasters”. So for the interest of visitors to this website I have uploaded the resulting document. For convenience I divided it into sections.

Section 1. The vessels involved: The preamble: the Sequence of Events.Click Here

Section 2. The Progress of the Investigations: BP’s Attempt to Stem the Flow.

Section 3. The Content of the Investigations:  Comments. Click Here

Section 4. The Senior Toolpusher’s Testimony. Click Here

 

Subsequent to the disaster and the sinking of the rig oil continued to flow from the well, and the various organisations tasked with the investigations started work.

 

Q4000 at Work by Robert Baher.

 

May 7 2010.

The US Coast Guard publish pictures of a containment device being lowered into the sea using a crane on the DP rig Q4000. An ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) known throughout the BP press releases so far as a “submarine”, has been successful in stemming one of the leaks. It is intended that the Discoverer Enterpriseis to be used to recover the oil and process it, and in fact store quite a bit of it. The drillship is to be connected to the containment device (the first of two), and the well flow channelled into its storage tanks. Like the Deepwater Horizon was, the Discover Enterpriseis dynamically positioned so it does not need any moorings.

May 17 2010.

Today BP have announced that they have stemmed the leak, apparently by means of inserting a flexible tube into the end of the riser and channelling the oil flow to the Discoverer Enterpriseon the surface. The drillship has on board the plant required to separate the gas from the oil, and is flaring off the gas, and is storing the oil in its tanks. Apart from anything else, this process will provide everyone with a good indication as to what the actual flow of oil from the well might be, since the storage capacity of the drillship is known. The possible flow has been estimated as being as little as 1000 barrels per day and as much as 80,000 barrels per day. The upper figure seems to be pretty unlikely however. 

May 28 2010.

By today everyone in the western world must be aware that things have not been going well for BP in the Gulf of Mexico, nor have they been going well for the American Government, the President or the Chief Executive of the Minerals Management Service, the authority which has up to today controlled the issuing of licences to drill, the collection of revenues and the management of safety in US offshore waters. Apart from what's happening out there at sea, in the choppy waters of the political ocean President Obama has attempted to create a lee by banning further deep water drilling for six months and demanding the suspension of operations on 33 wells in the Gulf. Also the chief executive of the MMS has either been sacked or resigned, depending on which paper you read. 

The well has continued to release oil into the Gulf, although BP have  achieved some success with the tube inserted into the end of the riser connected to theDiscoverer Enterprise, which has been collecting a proportion of the discharge. As things stand today the blowout preventer is still attached to the wellhead, and the riser, a 21 inch pipe, itself still attached to the top of the BOP, is lying like a strand of partly cooked spaghetti on the seabed. Most of the pictures seen so far have been of the end of the riser, from which the drill pipe protrudes, and from which oil can be seen belching out. 

BP has initiate a "top kill", pumping heavy mud into the well through the choke and kill lines. This is known in the industry as "bullheading". They have been doing this for about 24 hours and have stopped pumping recently to see whether the well is still flowing, and now have resumed this operation. Because some of the mud is not going down the well, but is rising through the BOP and can be seen exiting the end of the riser, the company has large quantities of mud on site in the large all aft Hornbeck support ships, the HOS Centreline and the HOS Strongline. Each of these vessels is capable of carrying over 30,000 barrels (4700 m3) of mud as well as much else. These ships are Hornbeck conversions. There are also other well stimulation vessels hovering about in case they are needed, and the distinctive Ulstein SX121, the Viking Poseidon, can be seen in many of the pictures probably providing ROV services, as is the DOF construction ship Skandi Navica.

The ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) had managed to make the choke and kill lines available at the BOP and had connected up flexible pipes to them from a manifold which must have been constructed to allow the team to control the flow to the various entry points between the rams. This in itself is something of an achievement since the BOPs are not built to be ROV operable, no matter what recent reports may say. And to digress for a moment, there is a difference between wellhead manifolds, which are intended to remain permanently in position on the seabed, and BOPs, which although they are also positioned on top of the wells being drilled, are deployed from the rig and recovered at the end of the job. The wellhead manifolds are now always constructed so that their valves can be operated by ROV - hot stabs as they are known - but as I said, not so the BOPs.

June 4 2010.

The fateful hours before the loss of the Deepwater Horizonon 20th April and eleven members of its crew are gradually being made known to the public at large from a variety of sources. Transocean are still saying nothing, but BP themselves and the US government investigators are beginning to reveal a little of what they have learnt. One expert has questioned the displacement of the drilling fluid (mud), with seawater, saying that this was the final straw in a catalogue of errors. 

By now BP have attempted to recover oil from the end of the riser with only moderate success, and that then they have tried a "top kill" using the choke and kill lines of the BOP. This second effort was actually pretty ingenious and must have tested the ROV pilots to the limits of their capabilities. They had managed to install a manifold which allowed them to use different parts of the BOP pipework, and through which they were able to pump "mud". The second string in this particular campaign was to be the junk shot, which would have been intended to close the gap in the BOP which is letting all that stuff out towards the surface. If they tried it, it did not work, so the ROVs were sent in again with big saws to cut the riser off just above the BOP.

Apparently the live feed from the ROVs has been fascinating viewing. In this  new world we can watch dramas as they are happening, because everything is being recorded or at least presented on a screen somewhere. The ROVs are not robots in any sense of the word. They are small neutrally buoyant devices which can be manoeuvred by means of their small thrusters, and which are provided with tools on their little arms. Without the ROV the offshore oil industry could never have made it beyond the maximum  depth which can be achieved by live divers.

The ROVs managed to cut the riser off above the BOP, and then a connection was achieved with a set-up lowered from the Discoverer Enterprise. We should not lose sight of the fact that this is not just a matter of connecting one pipe to another and then collecting the oil on the surface. If a good connection is made with the well then the Discoverer Enterpriseis exposed to the same risks as was the Deepwater Horizon, hence there is an LMRP, Lower Marine Riser Package, above this connection. The description indicates that within this structure there is a "bag preventer" which is capable of expanding and therefore restricting or cutting off the oil flow.

Elsewhere the relief wells are being drilled. The US President is on the coast showing how concerned he is, and the Managing Director of BP has not left America since the media storm commenced.

June 10 2010.

By now people might be starting to feel a bit sorry for BP, Beyond Petroleum rather than British Petroleum. Despite their generally overbearing attitude, it always seemed that they could look after themselves, but how can one protect oneself from the invective issuing from the mouth of no lesser person than the President of the United States, who has repeated this day that he will keep his boot on the throat of the offending company, which is BP America - formerly Amoco.  The President has also suggested that BP should meet the unemployment benefit for the people who have been put out of work by his moratorium on exploration drilling in water depths of over 500 feet. This was an instruction issued for political reasons, and  does not have much bearing on reality. In addition there seem to be about fifteen congressional committees waiting to get at anyone from BP that they can.

On the positive side the latest plan, to directly cap the BOP of the Deepwater Horizon with a specially constructed piece of well control equipment connected to the Discoverer Enterprise,is working pretty well. They say that they are recovering about 12000 barrels a day - this is approximately 2000 m3, and at $70 a barrel  (the price of oil at the time) the value for the recovery is about $840,000 per day. The Discover Enterprise has considerable storage space for the oil. BP are also working on a system to recover more oil using the previously installed manifold connected to the Deepwater Horizonchoke and kill lines. The say that this new modification will keep the system operable as the hurricane season approaches. 

It has been revealed that there might have been some disagreement between the BP supervisor on the rig and the senior Transocean drilling personnel about whether the mud in the riser should be displaced with seawater. And it may be that this disagreement was based on the lack of certainty about the status of the well. Interestingly the senior BP supervisor has not given evidence on the basis that his testimony might incriminate him - known as "taking the fifth". (The Company men were charged with Seaman’s Manslaughter but the charge was dismissed in the spring of 2015 on the basis that they could not be described as “seamen” in the terms of that legislation).

June 15 2015

It is now the middle of June nearly two months after the loss of the Deepwater Horizon, and there seems to be a subtle change in the  direction of the public statements which relate to the official line on the sinking of the rig, the death of eleven of the crew and the subsequent massive release of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It now seems that the well is pumping an almost unbelievable 40,000 barrels of oil per day into the sea. What bad luck we would think, in other circumstances, that BP should find probably the most productive single well in the Gulf of Mexico and then fail to keep hold of it. No wonder it was being difficult.

BP are gradually gaining the experience necessary to deal with a problem which no-one has faced before, and are succeeding in the operations currently in place, and have plans for improving the recovery process and for providing redundancy. By 11th of this month the Discoverer Enterprisehad recovered over 100,000 barrels of crude oil using the LMRP system described previously. The ship is positioned over the well using GPS and a dynamic positioning system and is connected by a rigid pipe to the LMRP and then to the top of the Deepwater HorizonBOP. In order to discharge the current cargo and hence make space available for further oil, the tug/barge combination Massachusettswas loaded with 115,000 barrels of crude and sent off to a refinery for discharge. It says something for their confidence in the weather that  this unit was sent fifty miles offshore and must have lain alongside the drillship to be loaded. 

Meanwhile the Q4000 is being, or has been, connected up to the choke and kill lines of the Deepwater Horizonby means of probably the same system as was used to attempt the well kill earlier. It also appears that the whole of the product recovered to this rig is being burnt off rather than stored and sent to the shore. This will be being done by the use of multiple well test burners, which are traditional bits of oilfield equipment and will probably successfully dispose of up to 20,000 bpd (barrels per day), the only problem being the possibility of melting bits of the rig if the water curtain is not efficient.  

As well as the Q4000, a dynamically positioned semi-submersible, there are currently three construction vessels on the location which provide most of the ROV services. These are the Skandi Neptun, the Viking Poseidonand the Ocean Intervention III, all of them Norwegian, but apparently able to work in the Gulf because they are not carrying cargo. There are also numerous smaller vessels at the wellsite engaged in skimming oil from the surface. And there are now plans, according to a letter from BP to Rear Admiral James Watson of the American Coast Guard, for the whole system to be upgraded into a more or less conventional FPSO/shuttle tanker operation. This is principally to provide a means of continuing with the recovery process as the hurricane season approaches. It appears from the letter that a suction pile has been installed, and to this a flexible line (riser) is to be attached terminating in a subsea buoy. From this buoy a connection will be made to the Toisa Pisceswhich is a well testing vessel, and so already has the processing equipment on board. Apparently it is still being modified, one assumes so that it can be connected by flexible to a shuttle tanker. The Hilex Producer, another well testing vessel is to be similarly modified and there are three shuttle tankers coming from Europe, including the recently commissioned Loch Rannoch

BP's letter describes the possible problems with their plans including the difficulties which may result from having all these vessels in quite a small area Traditionally there are also possible problems in the operation of dynamically positioned shuttle tankers, and there may never have never been offtake operations which involved two dynamically positioned vessels. However there are almost continuous operations between  moored FPSOs and DP tankers, and one of the problems is "yo-yoing" where the connection between the two vessels tightens up, and in addition the DP system also registers loss of position and propels the ship forward. Of course it ends up too close and the DP system goes into reverse - and so on. How will this go with two vessels in DP mode?

Meanwhile the investigation into the events before the accident are beginning to uncover exchanges between the BP engineers who appear to have made changes to the well plan but "expect that it will all be okay in the end". And the senate committee, questioning five top men from the oil industry, are suggesting that BP have remained more interested in trying to limit their liability than in sorting out the problem.

June 17 2010. 

Today the Senate Transportation Subcommittee met to interview some people with a relevance to the Deepwater Horizonaccident. They started off the Rear-Admiral Kevin Cook of the US Coast Guard, who seemed to be constantly at a loss as he tried to explain to the senators the responsibilities of flag states, and ABS and the inspection regimes carried out on foreign flag vessels - flag state inspections. He made occasional references to the IMO (The International Maritime Organisation) and how the Coast Guard attempts to guide international legislation in ways which will best serve the United States and maritime safety in general. This did not seem to cut much ice with the members of the committee who ask whether anyone from the Marshall Islands (the flag of the Deepwater Horizon) ever visited any ships in US waters or had provided any assistance in the disaster, or whether the South Koreans had been involved in any way (the constructors of the rig) or whether the Swiss had done anything at all (the country in which Transocean now resides). Of course most of this was actually grandstanding, with the objective of making a point about the Jones Act, and how all vessels operating in US waters should be American built, American crewed and American flagged. This is the most extreme form of cabotage, and one wonders how it is contributing to the investigation, the saving of lives in the future and the saving of the Gulf coast, its wildlife and its beaches, in the present.

June 22 2015.

Now, two calendar months since the rig sank, the investigation into the event, and the battle on the beaches of Louisiana and Florida against the oil spill, have almost been forgotten as American senators vie with each other in a competition to see who can be nastiest to BP, and who can make the best use of the tragedy. The old maxim of never letting a good disaster go to waste seems to be uppermost in their minds.  

So what is going on out there in the oilfield? The Discoverer Enterprisehas been recovering between fifteen and twenty thousand barrels a day of crude oil using the modified LMRP and the Q4000 has been recovering several thousand barrels a day using the kill line from the BOP connected to the manifold which had been installed to carry out the top kill.

During last week Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard confirmed that the Development Driller IIIis progressing well with the drilling of the relief well, and behind it Development Driller IIis also drilling a relief well. Both of these rigs are owned by Transocean, a point made by Mr Weaver of that company when he appeared before the Senate Transportation Sub-Committee. Admiral Allen also updated us on the status of the systems which are to replace the current processes in the future, but in this regard we do not see much difference at the moment. 

So while operations have virtually become a steady process, the politics have been nothing like this. The week ended with BP's Tony Hayward going yachting on Saturday. He joined his son, apparently, in the annual Isle of Wight “Round the Island Race” on his yacht, or his son's yacht, "Bob". It is possible that he was hoping to remain anonymous judging by the pictures of him in the media, but this was unsuccessful, which resulted in an outcry in America. What was he doing out there enjoying himself, they asked. That boat should be helping with the oil spill, not engaging in pointless leisure activities, they said. This obvious PR error committed by Mr Hayward was preceded by one committed by the BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg. On leaving the meeting with President Obama, at which BP agreed to fund the costs of the clean-up up to a value of $20 billion he said "We care about the small people". 

On the following day these words came back to haunt Tony Hayward who appeared before a senate committee for seven hours. There seemed to be lines of senators and there he was all by himself. He had apparently been tutored for the event by the PR firm Brunswick, but this did not seem to have helped much. How had the senators become so well informed, as they asked pertinent questions about cement jobs, and single strings and casing hangers? As it turned out they had probably used the presentation of the investigation carried out by Halliburton, which made something of a different case from that made by the presentation from Transocean or the presentation from BP. The senators said that Tony Hayward was going to be “sliced and diced”, and sure enough he was, although what good all this did is questionable. His only relief was an apology quite close to the beginning of the hearing from Senator Joe Barton, who said that the $20 billion contribution had been nothing more than a shakedown. However the senator retracted the apology later in the day. The hearing concluded with Senator Bart Stupak telling the BP Chief Executive that "We are not small people, but we wish to get our lives back", linking the gaff made by the chairman with one made earlier by the chief executive. 

During the week the documents which had been submitted to the US Government by Halliburton, Transocean and BP also made it into the public domain, and sure enough there was the Halliburton information highlighting the differences and the number of barriers created by the different types of well casing. The one chosen by BP only created two barriers they said, while the one which they would have recommended created four barriers - they said. So there was the senate committee's information. The Transocean presentation was less helpful, really only indicating possible areas for further investigation, and showing the various times when the BOP was tested; something which has been called into question even on UK TV when it was claimed that one of the control pods was leaking. The BP presentation includes a great deal of data on the well, since in this modern era the information is transmitted to the shore in real time, and indicates where unexpected pressures had been seen, and how the operation progressed. At least one expert has related the displacement of the mud with seawater to the accident, and the BP document suggests that at the very least this activity may have masked the fact that the well was flowing. 

July 16 2010.

The Bureau of Offshore Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement has taken over from the Minerals Management Service, who have been generally dissed in Wikipedia to the point that the whole thing seems to be written by some-one with an agenda. The article claims that MMS employees had taken drugs and had sex with employees of the very companies they were supposed to be regulating. It all sounds pretty alarming and really one would question how such an organisation had been allowed to continue to function. It was described by the New York Times as “a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behaviour and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch”. 

Meanwhile BP and its subcontractors have made some progress towards stemming the flow of the well. Today the first of the relief wells is only a few metres away from success. Once one breaks through the casing - a miracle in itself - mud can be pumped in near the bottom of the well, and as it flows upwards the column gradually gains weight, until when it gets to the top there is enough weight to hold down the oil.

Meanwhile a new cap has been fitted to the stub above the BOP, and one presumes that this is connected to the Discoverer Enterprise. Since the change in the authorities from MMS to BOEMRE the information has become a bit hazy. However it seems that a flexible riser has been connected to either the choke or the kill line and is apparently connected to the Helix Producer. This recovery may be being offloaded into the dynamically positioned tanker the Loch Rannoch, which was, when we were being offered more comprehensive information, on its way from the North Sea. 

According to Admiral Thad Allen (Retiring according to Reuters) there is a fourth ship in there somewhere, possibly connected to the new cap which today is closed while the experts check the system. It seems possible that the idea of actually shutting off the well with this new cap had not occurred to anyone before, and one has to say, if it works why do anything else. What they are checking is whether there is any flow of oil from the casing into the substrata - a blowout which would not have any means of control at all. It's slowly slowly then, and if they detect that the oil is leaking away into the earth they will open all the valves again and continue to recover as much as possible to the ships on the surface. It seems that it is nearly all over bar the shouting - but the shouting is going to go on for years.

August 30 2010.

Back in July BP had fitted the cap to the end of the riser sticking out of the top of the BOP, and after some time and testing they found that they could stop the flow of oil from the well. It seems likely that they had originally intended to direct the flow of oil to the vessels on the surface, but of course stopping the flow was an even better result. Then it might have occurred to them that if they could actually stop the flow then they could have another go at the top kill. So using a very high pressure pumping system, the cement unit,  which is routinely fitted to all rigs, they pumped in mud and then cement, and succeeded in regaining control of the well.

Today the investigation into the disaster has continued. Lists of witnesses have been made available. Earlier this month the testimony from the hearings which took place in July were posted on the internet, and in UK this resulted in a headline in the Guardian "BP rig's alarms were switched off to help workers sleep". This was taken from the testimony of Michael Williams who had the job of maintaining the electronics on the doomed rig. He said that the alarm systems on the rig had been inhibited, and that it had been stated by others on the rig that it was to allow people sleep. 

The testimony itself reads like something from an action novel. Williams was in his workshop when he saw his computer monitor explode before his eyes, and at the same time he heard the engines overspeeding, which although no-one seems to have actually said so, indicates that they were being fuelled by gas. Then he heard explosions and in the dark struggled out onto the deck, and to the Pilot House. While he and others were unsuccessfully trying to start the standby generator, nearly everyone else evacuated in the lifeboats at the forward end leaving them with few options but to jump over the side. It seems likely that his training in the US military probably saved his life, that and the FRC from the Damon B Bankston. 

This was the last of the “diary entries”, since the well is now under control and so everything from here on relates to politics and money.

 

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