Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

That Deepwater Mentality, Pt. 2

I've been interested about why decision-makers at BP, Transocean, and the ol' MMS felt that deepwater blowouts were so unlikely, or at least acted that way when outsiders inquired about them. From my article on deepwater drilling in the Gulf for Smithsonian in 2001:

“According to Larry Flak, vice president of Boots & Coots/International Well Control, the risk of a disastrous deepwater blowout is very low, given both the precautions taken and the physics involved. A blowout preventer stopped the giant P-36 rig off Brazil from causing a crude-oil spill onto the seafloor when the platform capsized and sank in March 2001. Flak, who headed up the 1991 oil field fire-fighting effort in Kuwait after the Iraqi retreat, says there has never been a deep-water oil-well blowout. Depth is an ally: in shallow water, escaping petroleum shoots straight to the surface from the seafloor, engulfing the rig in explosive gases or, worse yet, a firestorm. But in a mile-deep blowout, water pressure would help staunch the leak from the well; the slow sideways current of the open ocean would then sweep the oil and gas far from the rig, where it would disperse long before it could reach the surface. That would allow the blowout repair crew to get to work without delay, operating from the rig itself.

“But Richard Charter, marine conservation advocate for Environmental Defense, believes that the risk of a large oil spill from deepwater wells is real. 'Conditions at this depth are poorly understood,' Charter says. Citing trouble the industry has had in pinpointing the source of leaks in shallow-water equipment off California and Alaska, he predicts that deepwater leaks will be difficult to locate and fix using remote control technology. Deepwater oil spills could drift long distances on undersea Gulf currents before surfacing, perhaps coming to rest on the sugar-white beaches of Florida's -west coast. 'Anybody saying there aren't increased risks to the environment from deepwater drilling isn't paying attention to the facts,' he adds.”

After the Deepwater Explosion I went back through the pre-blowout trade literature, and it struck me that Larry (whom I have a lot of respect for) might have been somewhat circumspect in his answer. While there was a general feeling in the industry that boreholes would bridge over in the case of a high-pressure blowout and therefore be self-sealing, he did have some concerns. In fact in January 1997 he wrote a perceptive article for Offshore Magazine on the risks of deepwater blowouts, and how to manage them.

He ended his article with this chilling message:
“Blowout control options in ultra-deepwater are very limited. Blowout prevention is of paramount importance.”

I visited his shop and interviewed him later for my Inviting Disaster book, on lessons in personnel safety from oilwell firefighting. A great interview subject!

Unfortunately for the industry and the Gulf, Larry – having died in a catastrophic boating accident in 2009 -- was not available to consult on blowout prevention during the drilling of the troublesome Macondo 252 prospect well, or on the emergency response. Our loss!

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