Oil Spill Hearings Kick Off the Blame Game

Executives from BP, Transocean, and Halliburton are testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this morning, and blaming each other seems to be the name of the game. In their respective prepared statements, each company points to another as the likely responsible party in the explosion and subsequent spill.

Here’s an excerpt from BP America president and chairman Lamar McKay’s testimony (which operated the Deepwater Horizon rig), which blames Transocean (owner of the rig) for having faulty a blowout preventer, the technology that should have shut the well:

We are looking at why the blowout preventer did not work because that was to be the fail-safe in case of an accident. The blowout preventer is a 450-ton piece of equipment that sits on top of the wellhead during drilling operations. It contains valves that can be closed remotely if pressure causes fluids such as oil or natural gas to enter the well and threaten the drilling rig. By closing this valve, the drilling crew can regain control of the well.

Blowout preventers are used on every oil and gas well drilled in the world today. They are carefully and deliberately designed with multiple levels of redundancy and are regularly tested. If they don’t pass the test, they are not used.

The systems are intended to fail-closed and be fail-safe; sadly and for reasons we do not yet understand, in this case, they were not. Transocean’s blowout preventer failed to operate.

In his prepared remarks, Transocean CEO Steven Newman says blaming the blowout preventer “simply makes no sense.” “We have no reason to believe that they were now operational,” he said, as Transocean and BP had tested the blowout preventers on April 10 and 17. Instead, Newman blames Halliburton, which was contracted to pour the cement for the well:

What is most unusual about the explosion in this case is that it occurred after the well construction process was essentially finished. Drilling had been completed on April 17, and the well had been sealed with cement (to be reopened by the Operator at a later date if the Operator chose to put the well into production). At this point, drilling mud was no longer being used as a means of reservoir pressure containment; the cement and the casing were the barriers controlling pressure from the reservoir. Indeed, at the time of the explosion, the rig crew, at the direction of the Operator, was in the process of displacing drilling mud and replacing it with sea water.

For that reason, the one thing we know with certainty is that on the evening of April 20, there was a sudden, catastrophic failure of the cement, the casing, or both. Therein lies the root cause of this occurrence; without a disastrous failure of one of those elements, the explosion could not have occurred. It is also clear that the drill crew had very little (if any) time to react. The explosions were almost instantaneous.

What caused that catastrophic, sudden and violent failure? Was the well properly designed? Was the well properly cemented? Were there problems with the well casing? Were all appropriate tests run on the cement and casings? These are some of the critical questions that need to be answered in the coming weeks and months.

Halliburton chief health, safety and environmental officer Tim Probert, in turn, pointed back at Transocean, which was responsible for the Deepwater Horizon’s construction plan:

Halliburton is confident that the cementing work on the Mississippi Canyon 252 well was completed in accordance with the requirements of the well owner’s well construction plan.

I’m tracking both of today’s hearings on Twitter, which you can follow here.


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