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)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Visiting the deepwater play, 2000

Even as the reading public shows signs of Deepwater news fatigue, there are authors rushing to get books out that have oil slicks or fireballs on the cover. I'm not one of them: I confined myself an article for Invention & Technology magazine on the history of ROVs. It's in the current issue.

Until full investigations with subpoena power are complete, revelations are likely to be slanted one way or the other by selective releases.

I've been interested in the subject of deepwater drilling, and its benefits and risks, since 2000. In December that year I had the chance to spend four days on a deepwater oil & gas exploration project in the Gulf of Mexico for a Smithsonian article, published the following year. Coincidentally the ship I visited was the Discoverer Enterprise, which has been the base for the response work over the summer.

The rig owner was Transocean Sedco Forex; the “company man” on board was a BP employee. Also coincidentally, the time slot allotted for my visit was when the drillship was finishing up a deepwater confirmation well – the same stage at which the Deepwater Horizon met its end. As with the well at the Macondo prospect, the well I visited had tapped a very productive deposit, at what is now called the Thunder Horse field. Finally, the ship encountered a problem with its blowout preventer when I was there – not a direct safety issue, but a costly and frustrating refusal of the BOP to unlatch from the wellhead. This problem locked the Enterprise to the site for over a day and kept it from moving to its next job. I never heard a solid explanation for it when I was there, but there were theories, like methane hydrate gumming up the latching mechanism.

I mentioned this glitch in my article, along with a few mishaps aboard the Enterprise during its shakedown phase, such as a few tons of drill collar that crashed through the top of the control cab before I came. The mention of any mishaps, and my short discussion of the risk of deepwater blowouts, apparently upset Transocean when the article came out and it struck me that the deepwater industry was not accustomed to outsiders commenting on problems of any kind.

But let me add that Transocean when I was there looked to be genuinely focused on employee safety, including use of protective equipment, thorough provisions for emergency rig evacuation, and safeguards against helicopter crashes on the helideck. I still hold the handrails when I'm using stairways, based on the mandatory and persuasive safety briefing from the Transocean medic when I arrived.

No comments:

Post a Comment