11/10/2010 07:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Disaster on the Horizon : A Former Oil Man's Perspective

Excerpted from Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout

Phoom! It was that impossible-to-describe sound that happens when you're too close to the blast to hear the full roar. I could see nothing but orange, black, and red as I was engulfed in an intense, all-consuming heat. It was immediately sickening, and I began to process the fact that I was in serious trouble. At that same instant, I was knocked off my feet and slid headfirst down a muddy slope, plunging into water saturated with chemicals. The fire was overhead now, and I was completely disoriented. Crawling on my belly, underwater, unable to breathe, I was trying to get away from the heat that had permeated my skin. I crawled for what seemed like hours, though it was only seconds -- everything in slow motion.

Suddenly I felt strong hands grab me, pulling me from the ditch I had been blown into. I was doused with ice-cold water from a drinking-water can, causing me to draw a sharp breath. I was alive. Ken, an oil field truck driver I knew well, was shouting in my face, asking if I was okay. But I couldn't see him clearly or hear a thing. As my breathing improved, I came around and became aware that I was almost completely undressed. The blast had blown off most of my clothes, including my boots, hard hat, watch, and the sunglasses that had protected my eyes. My jeans were around my ankles. I was in one piece, but definitely a "crispy critter." My mustache and the hair on the front and left side of my head were fried. I was covered in frac gel, and the skin on my face and left side felt like it was on fire. I was lucky that the breath had been knocked out of me, saving my lungs from ingesting flame.

I breathed deeply as Ken doused me with ice water again and smeared me with Silvadene, a commonly used burn cream. He had himself been burned in a refinery fire a few years previously, and he carried a burn kit in his truck. I was lucky. Today I carry little physical evidence from that flash fire. Landing in the ditch had saved me from critical injury. But I think about the incident every day: This brief brush with death changed me forever.

It was 1981. I was 28 years old, superintendent for operations with a small, Dallas-based independent oil and gas producer, and had just survived an up-close-and-personal encounter with a pit fire on a location where I had been completing a Cotton Valley gas well in East Texas. This well, over 11,000 feet deep, had been nothing but trouble from the start. We had beaten our brains out during the drilling phase, stuck pipe multiple times, dealt with drill pipe leaks, and struggled to get production casing to bottom after finally getting the well drilled. On top of hole trouble and mechanical failures, we had to deal with a grouchy landowner who was more than happy to show off the hole he'd blown through his dining room wall with a shotgun, trying to kill his son-in-law. The son-in-law had physically abused the landowner's daughter, and Dad didn't like it. Welcome to East Texas.

Once we got the production pipe (through which gas flows to the surface) set and cemented, we finally got a break. The completion had gone relatively well, at least up until the point that I set myself on fire. The day had started early; I had opened the well right after sunup to flow back the frac job that we had pumped in the previous day. Frac jobs are used to increase the flow of hydrocarbons from a well by pumping into it frac gel, a chemical-laden fluid that carries a coarse proppant to hold open those fractures created by pumping into the productive formation. In those days, air and water pollution were given little thought. It was common practice to use unlined open pits to drain frac and mud tanks and to catch wellbore fluids as the well was drilled and completed. These pits were simply pumped out and then covered up with dirt when well operations were concluded, leaving behind tons of contaminants to leach into the soil. Drilling mud was even spread on pastures in the region, as most ranchers believed that it actually improved the local soil. On this particular day, the well had strong pressure as I opened the frac tree valves and began flowing the fluid directly into the flare pit where frac fluid was recovered. The well began slugging fluid mixed with natural gas as it unloaded. I watched as the well cleaned up and pressure increased, a good sign.

Early in the afternoon, I decided to see if the gas buster, a device installed at the end of the flow line to separate gas from water, would light off. To light the pit flare, I used the technique common at the time: Soak a cotton rag in diesel, light it with a cigarette lighter, stand on the pit edge, and toss it onto the flow line. What I had failed to realize was that the well had produced much more gas and condensate (a very light oil that's basically raw gasoline) than was obvious due to the high volume of water. For several hours, the gas had settled in the pit, being heavier than air, with the condensate coating the water, something I couldn't see, since condensate is clear. The burning rag hit the gas buster . . .

Phoom! With me standing right next to it.

I started my career in oil and gas in the mid-1970s, toward the end of the old days of the wildcatters. Most were gone, but a few were still around. The industry, at least domestically, had generally been decentralized during the previous 70 years, made up of thousands of producers that ranged in size from mom-and-pops all the way to the majors like Shell and Exxon. Drilling and completion technology were developing rapidly, but other important elements of the business lagged. Safety programs in many companies were viewed as mere inconvenience and given passing attention, especially by the smaller firms. Since I had begun my own career about six years previous to the fire, I had experienced my own collection of injuries--I'd smashed digits, suffered a broken tooth from being hit in the mouth by a chain on a drilling rig floor, and almost been killed by a falling joint of drill pipe in a near-miss accident on my first job on my first day on an East Texas drilling rig. That incident was a little too close for comfort. Missing digits, scars from burns, lacerations, and broken bones were common on every drilling rig floor I had ever stood upon. Drugs and alcohol were the painkillers of choice.

Very early on in my career, I learned that the industry I had chosen, though I loved it, was dominated by the macho myth of big iron, big rigs, wild wells, and wild men. I was swept up in it myself, pushing my own personal limits; my efforts propelled me quickly up the ranks, but my aggressiveness was one of the factors that led up to my losing battle with the pit fire. Rules were made to be broken, and money was A-1. Cash profit was everything, and efforts to make that profit not only pushed the edge of the envelope of responsibility and honesty, but often tore the envelope all to pieces. It was common practice for well-servicing companies to overcharge customers and use inferior products to increase margins. Salesmen, representing pipe, equipment, and service companies, regularly offered everything from cowboy boots to televisions to company men who could be influenced by this graft to send business their way. Pipe and wellheads were regularly stolen. Oil was siphoned off into water tanks, only to be picked up and sold by unscrupulous water haulers. A common saying of the day was that if the representative for oil purchasers didn't steal his own salary from the producer by underreporting oil on location, he wasn't doing his job. Producers underpaid royalties to landowners by applying adjustments and excessive charges. Deception was everywhere.

Just out of college, in early 1978, I went to work as a trainee for the Western Company, which provided well stimulation and cementing services. I was excited to move from the pipeline business -- where I had worked for several years on corrosion-control systems and coatings while I went to night school -- to the big time: drilling rigs in East Texas, one of the largest oil-producing regions in the country. I learned quickly, though, about the rules. One of the first things I was taught, besides how to handle an 18-wheeler, was how to fill out my Department of Transportation driver's log so I could work more hours than I was supposed to. I watched people drive huge well-servicing trucks on public highways with little to no sleep for days on end--and sometimes did the same myself. But that log was filled out right. During those days, I witnessed other dangerous practices and carelessness that were commonplace and saw several men severely injured and even killed as a result.

In 1981, I went to work for an independent oilman out of Dallas, who put me to work after, as a Western Company cementer, I had sat on a location for him on an East Texas Cotton Valley well. That well had stuck drill pipe and was kicking gas, trying to blow out. As a cementer, I worked on all kinds of jobs, from cementing casing in deep gas wells to repairing leaking pipe in some of the region's oldest oil wells. On this job, I worked for two straight weeks (in those days, relief was unheard of; once you were on a job, you stayed) pumping Black Magic, the chemical of choice to unstick pipe, and heavy mud to kill the well. We finally got the pipe unstuck, the well killed, and the casing cemented into the well. A few weeks later, the oilman's drilling and production manager called and offered me a job, and I jumped at it. I loved working for this operator. I went to blowout schools, attended open-hole well logging schools, and was a sponge for information, techniques, and, of course, crude oil field jokes.

The old superintendent I worked with taught me all about oil production equipment -- from downhole pumps to gas compressors -- and in just a couple of years, I was running field operations for the whole company, driving from East Texas to New Mexico, drilling and working over wells. My experience has exposed me to drilling and production operations across the oil-producing regions of New Mexico, West Texas, East Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf of Mexico. Years ago, I came to love the people (and food) in Deep South Louisiana, and I still go there every chance I get. Old toolpushers taught me to cook, and today my cuisine of choice when I'm doing the cooking is still rustic Cajun complete with Tabasco, cayenne, andouille, tasso, and a little lagniappe, "doncha know."

Over the early years, I have been part of a relatively small, tightly knit community to which change comes hard -- except any change that brings more opportunities to drill, of course. In my early career, I witnessed practices that endangered lives as well as polluting our air, water, and the very ground where we live, work, and raise our children. I've also watched my industry deny that its activities have any effect on our environment, fight every effort to reduce those dangerous activities, yet take credit when improvements were forced upon it and worked.
In the last four decades, the United States has become dangerously dependent on foreign sources of oil, most of which are hostile, even as the oil and gas industry has encouraged burning more and more oil by supporting economic policies that squander, not conserve, supply. During these last 40 years, our elected leaders have been more than happy to kick the can down the road, taking campaign money from the industry and watering down or defeating every effort to establish a comprehensive energy policy.

The textbook example of the defense of status quo is the industry's steadfast opposition to fleet mileage standards in vehicles. Limits on gasoline mileage means less gasoline sold; they want lots of SUVs and gas-guzzling supercars to keep that demand high. As a society, we have helped drive a worldwide economy based on the burning of carbon-based fuels that release greenhouse gases and other noxious particulates into the air, but we have done little to advance beyond it. Even as we have failed to develop new sources of energy, our own supplies, especially of oil, have declined precipitously with few exceptions. Among those exceptions are the deep gas shale fields that can be successfully produced only with the now controversial massive fracturing treatments and the oil fields of the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. Though these two sources of energy extend our own supply, like every other conventional fossil fuel, they are finite. Even the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the industry reluctantly admit that we have only about 50 years of domestic supply left. I personally believe it's much less than that, at least economically.

As a nation, we have been subject to embargos and price fixing from OPEC. Billions of dollars have been invested all over the world to develop reserves, and a good argument could be made that most of the violence and instability in the Middle East today is directly linked to multinational oil companies, like BP, and the governments with which they collude. To protect their monopolies, majors and independents in the oil industry have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into political candidates who carry their water, only to scramble, generally too late, to respond when political winds shift.

Which brings us to the subject of this book: the deadly blowout of BP's Mississippi Canyon Block 252 well, which caused the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States. This is a tragedy that simply did not have to happen. It was caused by bad design, bad judgment, hurried operations, and a convoluted management structure. Add in silenced alarms and disabled safety systems, and the result was inevitable. But what were they doing out there to begin with? Why are we drilling in mile-deep water 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico? What has driven us to look for oil in such extreme environments, pushing on the edge of technology?

The disaster on the Deepwater Horizon that was drilling this well is a direct result of a number of complex failures, mostly human. The hubris of those who work in the oil industry always creates risk, even as the industry struggles to change its ways. Though much improved since I started more than 30 years ago, there is still that bit of a wink and a nod when it comes to changing actual behaviors. Even as companies like Transocean have safety observation programs, where employees are rewarded for pointing out unsafe practices, most of the results are somewhat superficial. They spend thousands of man-hours reporting slip- and-fall hazards and overhead dangers, but then they ignore, and even encourage, the disabling of entire safety systems. Indeed, Transocean has a policy that anyone on the rig can shut down operations if they deem an operation unsafe. At the same time, some employees can't name one time that anyone actually had the guts to do that. It looks good on paper, though, and sounds good in new-employee training classes. This dismissive behavior is embedded into the DNA of those who work in the industry, especially those who started back when I did. When combined with a truly threatening situation like that on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010, that behavior can erupt into a conflagration. Literally.

We all watched as the oil from the BP well came ashore weeks after the blowout, and we watched the now familiar videos of the oil in the surf and marshes along with the dead and dying birds. As tragic as this ecological catastrophe is, I can't help but think about the 11 men who were killed on the Deepwater Horizon and what killed them. As the disaster unfolded, BP's mantra, "All is going according to plan, but we won't know for another 48 hours," was disingenuous and did these men's memories dishonor while treating the general public as stupid. Clearly, despite all the assertions to the contrary, BP, and indeed the entire industry, was utterly unprepared to manage a blowout of this complexity and magnitude. They, and all the other companies that drill in the deepwater, assert in every permit filing that they are able to deal with potential blowouts and the ensuing spills that may occur, claiming that minimal environmental damage would result.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Before this blowout, my industry didn't have the slightest clue how to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude, and many simply dismissed it, calling it "a black swan," or "one in a million," or saying that "accidents happen." Well, that's not good enough. As we watched BP struggle with this monster, saying every day that "this has never been done before," we all feared that it was the things we didn't understand that would probably be the most damaging. The unprecedented use of chemical dispersants at the seafloor was done on an experimental basis, even as the scientific community screamed for BP to stop carpet-bombing the vast spill site with dispersants. The damage is untold and likely to last for decades, but much of the media gleefully reported that the oil "disappeared" when dispersed oil stayed below the surface after the well's oil flow was finally stopped.

I have spent my career in this industry, immersed in its culture and practices. I've spent years in the field, on the finance and deal-making side, and managed companies large and small. I've watched the industry deny its negative impact on people's lives simply to protect profits, and I've listened as executives railed about how much money was being taken out of their wallets-- instead of railing about the legacy they were leaving their own grandchildren. I've also heard oilmen describe members of their own families dying prematurely of cancer while denying that the air they breathe and water they drink may be causing that cancer.

As an insider, I believe I have a unique perspective on the oil and gas industry culture and how it contributed to the BP disaster. My book examines the factors, both mechanical and human, that led up the blowout and subsequent oil spill. I will approach this story from my perspective as one in this industry, and I will attempt to describe the technical and mechanical issues in a language that hopefully everyone can readily grasp, assembling the events from investigative testimony and descriptions given by the survivors. Hopefully, this story can shed some light on what happened that fateful night, as well as sparking some conversation about where we are as a nation in our struggle for energy security, and how drilling in challenging environments fits into that struggle.

Bob Cavnar, a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, is the author of Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout, recently released by Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

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