Rift Grows Between Government and BP

07/19/2010 11:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday afternoon, an anonymous US Government official leaked to the press that a sea floor seep had been discovered near BP's blown out Mississippi Canyon Block 252 well.  A media frenzy ensued, and my phone began to ring.  Reporters wanted to know how significant this seep was, whether the well was leaking, and what should be done next.  AP had broken the story about 5:00 PM my time, citing the unnamed official complaining that BP is not complying with the government's demand for more monitoring.  BP responded in character, saying, "we continue to work very closely with all government scientists on this."  Yes, working very closely.  They're working so closely with the government that Adm Allen fired off a tersely worded letter to Bob Dudley about an hour later ordering BP to report all leaks within 4 hours of discovery and to also provide a statement of their intentions with 24 hours of the letter.   This last communication came on the heels of a statement from Adm Allen reasserting authority over BP's operations after Doug Suttles' Sunday morning McBriefing that caused a morning media storm when he stated that they could just keep the well shut in until the relief well is completed.  Just your normal Sunday in BPworld.

Last night, government scientists held a conference call with BP to discuss the seep and, I would assume, other issues.  This morning, Adm Allen issued yet another statement saying that he had authorized another 24 shut in (I'm not sure when that started) after he got commitment from BP to meet his monitoring and reporting requirements.  Of course, after making this commitment, BP promptly announced that they were canceling this morning's McBriefing.  It's actually no great loss, since during these "technical briefings," they give little to no real information, and refuse to answer the few questions they allow through the electronic iron curtain.

In the oil and gas business, oil companies often keep information about a well secret, or "tight".  A "tight hole" is a well where no information is disclosed and all contractors are required to stay mum in order to be allowed to work on that well.  A decades-long game that is played in the industry is to get well-specific information about  these "tight holes".  In the old days, oilfield "scouts" would show up on drilling rigs to visit, and they would frequent cafes and bars where workers would congregate.  It is said that a good scout could pull information out of a worker "through his nose" if given enough time (and booze).  In the afternoons, they would traditionally show up at the same bar for "scout check," to exchange information and gossip; some also just showed up to drink, the national pastime of the oilfield.  Scout checks still happen today, but with many of the big wells now offshore, much of the information gathered is between geologists, engineers, and drillers, often at fancy dinners or on the golf course rather than on the rigs themselves.  But, I digress.

BP is treating this catastrophe like a tight hole.  They are giving little to no relevant information about the well, refusing to give even basic data such as pressures.  They freely admit that they have engineers and scientists glued to video screens and data feeds, but won't disclose any of that information.  Up until now, the government has been the enabler rather than the watchdog, at least as far as we can tell.  Since the government is also withholding information, we don't know what they've received and what they haven't.  One thing BP has proven without a shadow of a doubt, however; if you don't ask the right question, they are more than happy to just sit there and not answer the relevant questions.

There are 2 conclusions one could draw since this new anonymous "federal official" came forward about the seep; first, the government scientific team is getting frustrated by BP's lack of cooperation with concerning data and management of this disaster; or, that Adm Allen is firing a shot across BP's bow.  As we know, Adm Allen signed off on a risky procedure in this "well integrity test"; information that I've gathered tells me this procedure included taking at least one component, the flex joint, above designed MWP (maximum working pressure).  I'm not sure Adm Allen or his team realized that, and I don't know if BP made sure he did realize that.  Maybe somebody on the government team woke up yesterday after Suttle's McBriefing. 

With the creeping 24 hour extensions Adm Allen has been giving BP, and their flagrant tight-holing of information from the public, it's become clear that BP has successfully boxed in the government, forcing them into the position of having to order them to begin containment.  If that happens, then they can then argue that any more oil that goes into the Gulf is not their fault.  BP's primary goal here is to keep the video of oil spewing into the Gulf off of national television; their secondary goal is to shift as much blame for this to others, as well as making it impossible to calculate the total amount of oil that they've allowed to pollute our Gulf of Mexico.  They have successfully rope-a-doped Allen now for over a week, and he has allowed himself to be boxed in.  By not forcing them to contain and measure the flow of the well from the new capping stack, he has blundered into the position of now having to make the decision to reopen the well, a decision that is not without risk.  By design, BP has set up their containment system that supposedly requires them to open the well into the water rather than to the attached ships to get the well flowing (I don't buy that, but apparently Adm Allen has).  By now forcing Allen to give the order, they have him checkmated in this high stakes chess game. 

Maybe, just maybe, Allen's finally getting fed up.  He's just too late.  I just wish that there were more experienced oil and gas specialists on his team, not just a bunch of academics or researchers.  He needs gray-haired field operations hands here, not teachers or Nobel Prize winners.  We have enough of those.


Oh, BTW, there's a leak on the new capping stack.  It looks minor, but leaks never get better.  I'll post about that later today.