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Safety Shortcuts Led To Gulf Disaster

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By Author: Salvador Mays
Total Articles: 32
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While it stood, British Petroleum's "Deepwater Horizon" well represented a monumental feat of engineering-history's deepest off-shore oil well, penetrating nearly six and a half miles beneath the sea and the earth's crust. A mile of pipe shot straight-down through pristine Gulf waters to the ocean floor; another five miles of pipe drove deep into Earth's thin skin to an underground lake of rich, thick primordial ooze known as "Louisiana light sweet crude."

For at least twelve hours before Mother Earth released an apocalyptic surge of oil and natural gas, igniting an explosion visible for more than thirty-five miles in all directions, BP and TransOcean workers knew their rig was in deep trouble. They reported tremendous pressure in the well-pipe and gross disproportion between the pressure in the pipe injecting drilling mud into the hole and the pipe bringing oil and natural gas to the Gulf's surface. Some workers' notes and computer data indicate that TransOcean engineers considered and perhaps even tried to shutdown the well immediately before it "blew out." Apparently, most workers aboard the platform understood that ...
... the blowout preventer would not work.

Why then did all operation not cease? Likely the reason to forge ahead was based on the half-a-million dollars a day spent to lease the rig. This amounted to substantial outpouring of company money before a single drop of oil was 'discovered'.

What Caused Gulf Oil Disaster

Known in oil speak as a "blowout," by all accounts there was a cataclysmic surge of pressure-packed oil and methane gas that caused the explosion. This type of event can occur in all types of drilling situations. The resulting surge can splinter a rig into a billion tiny shards of technological failure but there are precautionary measures to avoid this happening. Even in such situations where a blowout occurs, there is what is known as a blowout preventer. A precaution designed to cut off and suppress the oil in the well pipe avoiding an actual blowout. The problem in the Gulf of Mexico is the blowout preventer on 'Deepwater Horizon' was seriously ill equipped.

Blowout preventer

In the largest installations-like "Deepwater Horizon"-the blowout preventer is supposed to have as many as four redundant and ultimately fail-safe activation mechanisms: one pressure activated, one activated by sound waves or vibration, one mechanical, and one manual. Another characteristic of an effective blowout preventer is that it must have sufficient hydraulic power to cut through the well-pipe even at its thickest points and hold tight to withstand as much as 100 times the pipe's normal pressure.

Driven by BP's sense of urgency about getting the rig into production, technicians installed a "standard" blowout preventer on the rig, knowing that it was not powerful enough to withstand the pressures a five-mile pipe could generate. Still driven by BP's relentless pressure to get the rig into production, technicians installed all the fixtures and wiring for at least three activation systems. At several critical points, however, they installed junction boxes either upside down, backwards, or cross-wired. At some points in the system, they were supposed to install batteries for monitoring devices; another step woefully skipped. Photographic documentation of the blowout preventer show nicely and likely this satisfied inspectors enough to look the other way on particulars. It never had even the faintest prayer of working, however.

In the aftermath of this Gulf oil incident, it is not exactly clear whether or not those workers who lost their lives knew of the lack of safety precautions at the drilling site. It is likely we will never know the answer to this question. Further, their deaths make it difficult to ascertain if they willingly put their lives at risk under such conditions.

Industry insight

Vaughn Energy Services(www.vaughnenergy.com), Corpus Christi, Texas, believes there are lessons to be learned from Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. As a company, Vaughn has always been a strong advocate of safety in drilling and encourages any company active in oil and gas exploration industry to be mindful of the mistakes made by British Petroleum executives. According to an unnamed source at Vaughn Energy Services, "Safety is not an area known to afford shortcuts".

BP and Hindsight

BP could have heeded Wyatt Earp's advice about how to perfect the "quick draw." The secret, Earp said, is to know exactly how to go fastslowly. At every critical juncture of construction and testing, Haliburton, BP, and TransOcean officials hurtled recklessly headlong toward their objectives without respect for the drilling process. In an enterprise that demands precision at least as exquisite as Swiss watch-making, company representatives settled for quick and dirty methods, dismissing fatal flaws with the old construction adage, "Can't see it from my house." Now, residents and visitors to the Gulf Coast are faced with an environmental clean up that exceeds any other disaster in known history and families of those workers who lost their lives face an uncertain future.

The author of this article is a freelance writer. The article's sponsor is Vaughn Energy Services, a North American company engaged in oil and gas exploration. Visit their website: http://www.vaughnenergy.com .

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