Tuesday, May 11, 2010

This apocalypse is brought to you by. . . .

We hold some truths to be self-evident. Likewise, so are some tragedies.

The Gulf oil spill is one of those self-evident catastrophes. The destruction speaks for itself; the plain facts speak to the unspeakable sins against nature and man in all this, and no poor words of mine can add to that or subtract from it.

The plain facts in one Times-Picayune article Monday say enough about what went so horribly wrong on an exploration rig 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

The plain facts speak to the horror wrought by poor judgment and careless complacency. And the testimony of the living, brought to light by a righteous engineering professor, bears witness to the horror of the last moments of the dead.

What happened in the Gulf in April led to an ongoing catastrophe the coastal states -- most notably, Louisiana -- are just beginning to live now. It is, and will be, an affront to the economy of that region and, especially, to nature and nature's God.

It took just two of the "seven deadly sins" to turn an effort by three horsemen of the capitalist apocalypse -- BP, Transocean and Halliburton -- into the "destroyer of worlds" Robert Oppenheimer referenced upon witnessing the first atomic blast.

Greed and pride. That's all it took.

HERE'S A TASTE of the Times-Picayune's account of catastrophe in the making. Read on, and do go and read the whole thing:
Shortly before the accident, engineers argued about whether to remove heavy drilling mud that acted as a last defense against such catastrophic kicks, and the decision to replace the mud with much lighter seawater won out.

Those are some of the new details gathered by Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley engineering professor better known in New Orleans as co-leader of an independent team of scientists that conducted a forensic investigation of the causes for the failure of levees and floodwalls during Hurricane Katrina.

In an effort to piece together the cause of the region's most recent calamity, Bea has been gathering statements, transcripts and other communications from about 50 people since the accident, including workers on the rig, engineers who worked with the rig from onshore locations, and engineers and oilfield workers who have been active in drilling for decades.

"As the job unfolded, ... the workers did have intermittent trouble with pockets of natural gas," said one statement sent to Bea. "Highly flammable, the gas was forcing its way up the drill pipes. This was something BP had not foreseen as a serious problem, declaring a year earlier that gas was likely to pose only a 'negligible' risk. The government warned the company that gas buildup was a real concern and that BP should 'exercise caution'".


Bea believes the narrative he is creating raises serious questions about the risk assessments used by BP and the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency charged with determining whether the drilling plans were adequate.

They failed to address what's called "residual risk," those things that planners don't think will fail. And in doing so, they underestimated the risk in ways very similar to the engineers who designed New Orleans' levee system, Bea said.
GREED. PRIDE. And then death -- death of 11 men, and perhaps death of a whole world, a whole ecosystem, a whole culture.
In the incident that forced Deepwater Horizon to shut down drilling temporarily, workers in the rig's drilling mudroom stabilized the situation by putting a heavier form of "mud," actually a mixture of clay and chemicals, into the drill-pipe as a counter-balance, pushing down against the upward pressure of the gas, Bea said.

A transcript Bea collected from a witness says the companies were confident enough they had a lucrative oil source that they decided to convert from an exploratory well to a more permanent production well, a process that requires them to apply a metal and cement casing to the well hole. They chose casing 7 inches in diameter, Bea said, and that was further sealed with cement pumped in by Halliburton. Bea said his sources reported that Halliburton was using a "new" kind of cement for the seal, something the scientist said made him say, "Uh oh."

"The cement is infused with chemicals and nitrogen, and those chemicals and nitrogen form a frothy cement that is like shaving soap sprayed from a can," Bea said. "It was put in there because of the concern about damage or destruction of the seals by methane hydrates."

The crew on the Deepwater Horizon waited 20 hours for the cement job to cure before opening a key valve at the wellhead so they could place a final cement plug about 5,000 feet down the well. Bea gives Halliburton credit for writing "many excellent papers" in the past two years about the challenge of setting cement seals in the presence of large amounts of methane hydrates, which the Deepwater Horizon crew encountered in spades.

"Because of the chemicals they've added, they think the cement can cure rapidly," Bea said.

But Halliburton's awareness of cementing's challenges did not stop the cement from failing in the Deepwater Horizon's well. The chemicals they added for the curing process also create a lot of heat, which can thaw the methane hydrate into the gas that causes dangerous kicks, Bea said.

"I call that 'Uh oh' again," he said.

One of Bea's witness transcripts describes in detail a heated debate among BP, Halliburton and Transocean officials as they are about to add the final cement plug to the well, 5,000 below the wellhead and 10,000 feet below the rig. They argued about whether to set the plug with drilling mud still in the well and riser, or if they should do it with lighter sea water there instead.
HALLIBURTON . . . is there anything (bad) it can't do?

No. No, there's not.
As The Times-Picayune reported last week, Bea's witness claims the decision was made to displace the heavy mud barrier with water before the final plug was set in order to finish the job more quickly.. The crew was planning to temporarily abandon the well, and before leaving, they would need to remove the riser and the blowout preventer, a massive stack of valves and slicing rams that are supposed to shut off the well in case of an emergency, and some time later another operation would re-tap the well to extract its riches.

The mud in the riser would have to be replaced with salt water before the crew could take the final step of removing the blowout preventer, or else polluting mud and chemicals would spill into the sea, angering environmental regulators. But based on Bea's witness, who describes the debate on board the rig and with officials in Houston, there was still a question about whether to replace the mud before the final plug was set.

"The debate comes back that it's been pressure-tested, the coast is clear, so they will displace the upper 10,000 feet of heavy mud and replace it with salt water," Bea said. "This is a crucial step, and the reason it's crucial is if the seal at the bottom is fine, it's OK, but if it's not OK, we're screwed. We don't have enough pressure (from mud) in the column anymore to fight the reservoir (gas and liquid) pressure."


"The explosion hurls them against the other wall" of the galley, Bea said. "Here's where I broke down when I read it.... It describes bodies being broken, necks gashed and people bleeding, and now everybody's in the dark. People are screaming for help. People are busy helping their comrades get to two lifeboats.

"People in the lifeboats are screaming, 'We've got to get out of here!' but the lifeboats aren't full," Bea said. "The doors slam and they drop the (lifeboats), and as they do, they can see some of their colleagues jumping into the sea. They can see their outlines because the rig is burning behind them.

"Back on the drill floor, all hell has broken loose. Explosions are propagating from the mud pit room back toward them," Bea said. "At that point, one transcript that's obviously been an observer heading toward the lifeboats says the drill floor disappears in a ball of flame. And at that point, the three on-board transcripts stop."

Bea said the concluding paragraph from one of those observing the explosion summed up the depth of the failure.

"In order for a disaster of this magnitude to happen, more than one thing has to go wrong, or fail. First, a shitty cement job. The wellhead packoff/seal assembly (the equipment directly below the blowout preventer that connects the lower pipe casing to the preventer) while designed to hold the pressure, is just a backup. And finally, the ability to close the well in with the BOP somehow went away," the witness said
OF ONE THING, I have no doubt. Satan is a libertarian.

1 comment:

nettiemac said...

Oh my stars. Those maps were enough to scare me. And I have no doubts as to what was driving this particular Big Three...... When will we learn that dominion over the earth is not domination of it for a few measly bucks, but careful stewardship of it and its beauty and good.

When I think of everything the people of the Gulf Coast have seen in the last few years, it breaks my heart.