NPR’s Fresh Air had a compelling show yesterday with New York Times science reporter Henry Fountain. He had a hand in several of their articles showing the negligence at work in building the Deepwater Horizon rig. When asked if a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, since blocked by a district court judge in Louisiana, is enough, Fountain had an interesting response. He said that when you look at disasters from NASA over the years like the Space Shuttle Challenger or the Apollo I mission, they usually grounded themselves for a couple years to figure out what was wrong. That showed a commitment to their astronauts and to use federal dollars toward the safest possible purpose. In the world of deepwater drilling, precisely the opposite calculus is made. It’s all about doing the same job for less money, and the consequences be damned. Here’s how Fountain summed up:
“One of the things I learned is that this particular well that had the blowout wasn’t really unusual. … But one of the things is, it really goes back to our need for oil, and not just for cars but for pretty much everything — plastics, fertilizers and society,” he says. “And the problem is, is that the easy oil has basically been gotten: the oil from land, the oil from shallow offshore wells. So going forward, we’re going to have more of these wells drilled in extreme conditions. So, in a way, there’s potential for more disaster in the future, and it seems to me that if there were ever an argument for pursuing alternative energies, the argument is being made now — in a pretty hard way, but it’s being made.”
Go listen to the whole program. And in between, you can read this story from Steve LeVine. Anywhere that BP could have cut corners, they did it. BP systemically violated the industry standard practice in just about everything they did on the Deepwater Horizon rig. LeVine provides a flowchart of all the things that collectively had to go wrong to come up with an uncontrolled blowout at the scale that we see in the Gulf. There’s no way for it to happen unless it was planned – not in a malicious sense, but planned in the sense that BP would studiously take cost-cutting steps in practically every case, valuing money over safety.
As you see, the chain of events starts with many moving parts, then cascades out of control — the seals on the head of the well; the tubular casing that’s inserted into well as it’s drilled; the cement used to seal the well and keep the natural gas under control; the “mud,” a thick, complex, chemical-laced concoction used to lubricate and keep underground pressure from bursting to the surface.
Then comes a row of ORs: Do you have a failure to follow correct procedures when doubt is cast on your control of the pressure from the reservoir? If the wellhead seal fails, do fluids from below reach the actual rig 5,000 feet above the ocean floor?
Then come some ANDs. If the fluids do reach the rig, and there is a source of ignition to cause an explosion, you get the blowout and fire.
They used cheaper seals, cheaper well casing, cheaper cement, seawater instead of mud, one blind shear ram instead of two, etc., etc.
Where this becomes consequential going forward for BP is in the arguments of the other owners of the rig, who are asserting “gross negligence” on the part of the main owner to absolve themselves of liability.
Halliburton, a project contractor, says it followed instructions from the well owner, a group led by BP. Transocean, which leased the rig to BP, says it was liable only for surface spills — not those emanating from the sea bottom. Anadarko Petroleum, a venture partner, implies that it may be off the hook because BP likely engaged in “gross negligence or willful misconduct.” Schlumberger, another contractor, says it is figuring out if it is contractually insulated from liability.
“The responsibility for this event will be debated for some time, and there is a lot of confusion around where liabilities begin and end,” said Bart Nash, a spokesman for the London-based Lloyd’s marketplace, whose insurance syndicates face hundreds of millions of dollars of losses from the catastrophe.
But little of this matters in the big picture, because I cannot accept that Andarko as a majority owner would have somehow acted differently. The premium in deepwater drilling really does seem to me to be faster, cheaper, more. Safer doesn’t enter the equation.