Beyond The Movie: Deepwater Horizon Redux

10/03/2016 03:05 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2016
Handout via Getty Images

The Deepwater Horizon movie, out this week, takes us back to the spring of 2010, when a horrific, deadly explosion was followed by night-after-night video coverage of oil surging from an out of control well a mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico.  Hollywood is doing us a favor in reminding us of the human and environmental cost of a tragedy that has faded from the national consciousness.  The movie, which focuses on the blowout itself, offers an overdue opportunity to reflect on how we responded as a government, and a nation, to this searing event that the experts had assured us would never occur.

I offer here four observations about the Gulf oil spill, and key lessons that we need to draw from them.

Even As The Deepwater Horizon Burned And Sank, Most Experts Doubted That It Would Cause An Oil Spill

A huge explosion rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig around 10:00 pm on April 20, 2010.  In the havoc that followed, eleven souls were lost.  Heroism ruled that night, enabling the rest of the crew to beat the odds and survive. After the crew escaped from the rig, it continued to burn for two more days and then sank.

Despite these gruesome developments, offshore drilling experts in New Orleans and Houston expressed confidence that the loss of the Deepwater Horizon would not trigger a massive oil spill. In their view, it was a virtual certainty that when BP lost control of the well, the operators deployed the rig’s blow-out preventer, or “BOP” ― a large piece of equipment whose sole job was to shear the pipe and shut in the well in emergency situations.

Hope prevailed for several days that the BOP had done its job and stopped the flow.  Unfortunately, after deep-sea ROVs (remote operating vehicles) finally reached the broken wellhead, they revealed that oil was flowing, unimpeded, into the Gulf. 

Even then, however, the BOP was still seen as a potential savior.  For days, ROVs tried to manually actuate the BOP’s shearing rams.  The efforts failed, and the spill was on.  The last line of defense – the BOP – had failed. 

There Was No Playbook For How To Quickly Plug An Out-of-Control Well 5,000 Feet Below the Surface

Within days of the oil spill, the leadership of Homeland Security, the Interior Department and the Energy Department canvassed government and industry experts – including the CEOs of major oil and gas companies and the Joint Chiefs of Staff― to identify strategies and equipment that could be deployed to plug the mile-deep Macondo well, far below the capability of direct human intervention.

The only clear pathway for success was to drill a relief well from a second rig that would laterally intercept the Macondo well below the seabed, inject it with cement, and kill it.  But that would take three or four months to complete.  Nearer term options that bubbled up included various efforts to capture spewing oil via a containment dome and then a “top hat” device, and efforts to plug the well via a “junk shot,” a “top kill,” and by attaching a “capping stack” on top of the well. 

One by one these options were tried.  And one by one, they largely failed, leaving the capping stack as the only remaining option. 

The capping stack option involved placing a large new piece of equipment over the broken well, activating closure valves and, hopefully, shutting off flow from the well.  The concern about this approach was two-fold.  First, a capping stack would need to be located, and modified, for the task at hand. It would take time. Second, there was a significant danger that closing the capping stack’s valves would create so much backpressure that oil would escape from the broken well and erupt randomly from the sea floor, creating an even more nightmarish containment challenge.

The customized capping stack was fabricated in record time, and was brought to the offshore site and readied for deployment by early July.  As decision time approached, the internal debate about whether to take the risk of a catastrophic failure intensified.  The lack of solid data about reservoir pressures confounded the analysis. 

Unsung scientists from the Interior Department came to the rescue. A team of USGS scientists worked around the clock to estimate potential reservoir pressures and evaluate whether the capping stack would hold, or whether breakthrough might occur on the seafloor.  Paul Hsieh, who later received the prestigious Federal Employee of the Year Metal for his vital work, put together the analysis that persuaded DOE Secretary Steven Chu and others that the capping stack should hold back the flow and not cause breakthrough.  

The Interior Department ordered BP to go forward and the capping stack was deployed on July 12, 2010.  After many nervous hours of observation, the capping stack held without breakthrough.  The well was shut off, with the final “kill” occurring via the relief well on September 19, 2010. 

The Administration’s Decision To Pause Deepwater Drilling For Six Months To Address Safety Concerns Was the Right Call

Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon went down, the question arose whether other rigs working in the Gulf’s deep water would be allowed to continue drilling their wells to completion.  And, secondly, when would the federal government deem it safe to once again resume the drilling of new deepwater wells?

The White House answered the first question quickly:  all on-going drilling operations had to find a safe zone, stop drilling, and pull up.

What about the resumption of drilling?  The Administration announced that no new drilling would be allowed until safety questions raised by the Deepwater Horizon disaster were addressed.  An expedited 30 day study, informed with the help of outside experts, followed.  It identified a number of potential safety questions and issues, which, in the judgment of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and the President, merited a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf. 

The moratorium was the right call. Among other things, the pause in drilling enabled the Interior Department to reorganize and revamp its offshore regulatory program, enhance BOP inspection requirements, and upgrade the “worst case” analyses required from drilling applicants.  Indeed, Interior completed its expedited, rigorous, top-to-bottom safety review and lifted the drilling moratorium from drilling applicants by mid-October – more than a month earlier than anticipated. 

Once the moratorium was lifted, industry needed additional time to meet Interior’s new requirements including, in particular, access to the equipment that ultimately saved the day for the Macondo well:  a capping stack and specialized containment vessels.  All parties worked together hard, and in good faith, to complete safety upgrades and enable deepwater drilling to continue, albeit more safely. 

Experts Could Not Agree On How Much Oil Was Surging From The Macondo Well

Night after night in May, June and July of 2010, CNN and other cable companies ran video feed from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, graphically showing oil spewing from a hole in the seabed.  With no end in sight, anxious observers wondered how much oil was being disgorged into the Gulf.  The answers were not satisfying.

BP initially estimated a spill rate of 1,000 barrels.  NOAA upped the estimate to 5,000 barrels per day by the end of April.  As the weeks went on, outside experts speculated that much higher amounts of oil were being discharged into the Gulf every day, with one scientist publicly asserting that as much as 100,000 barrels per day could be flowing into the Gulf. 

Government scientists were unsure of what to do.  There were limited data points upon which to base a sound estimate. Given the huge uncertainties, most government and independent scientists were reluctant to be pinned down on a potential volume. 

A Flow Rate Technical Group was set up, chaired by Dr. Marcia McNutt, the Director of USGS, to bust through the scientific impasse.  Attacking the measurement issue from multiple angles, government scientists upped the estimate of flow from 5,000 barrels a day to a more credible 20,000 or 40,000 barrels per day.  In succeeding weeks, they continue to refine their analysis, ultimately concluding that 50,000 to 70,000 barrels per day had flowed into the Gulf, for a total of approximately 5 million barrels in total.  They published their methodology, and results, in a scientific journal.

Lessons Learned

In hindsight, the lessons learned from these observations may seem obvious.  But they were not at the time, and they merit reflection here. 

First, the notion that BOPs provided a “fail safe” last line of defense against a deepwater oil spill was clearly misplaced.  We learned the hard way that regulators and companies can be lulled into complacency about low probability/high impact “Black Swan” events.  As a nation, we need to fight again this tendency and support rigorous, smart regulatory oversight of dangerous operations.

Likewise, the scramble to find an engineering solution to the Gulf oil spill while it was happening was no way to do business.  Today, we are safer because deepwater drilling is no longer allowed in the Gulf unless drillers have ready access to the equipment that finally stopped the Macondo oil spill.  Additional structural reforms and safety improvements were put in place during the pause in drilling in 2010, and in the months and years that have followed.  We must never again find our nation so exposed to such a man-made, avoidable catastrophe. 

Finally, the Gulf oil spill reminded us that getting good information out in the midst of a crisis is essential.  The question of how much oil was flowing into the Gulf had to be answered.  Americans have a right to expect their government to take charge and come up with answers in times of crisis, even if it is difficult to do so.

More needs to be done. At the top of the list are the common sense reforms that the independent National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill urged Congress to enact.  In the meantime, we must absorb, and continue to act on, the lessons that the crisis taught us.  We owe that to those who lost their lives, to their families, and to all of those in the Gulf who suffered from the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon and the massive oil spill that followed.

David J. Hayes is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Chair of the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance.  He was the Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Department of the Interior during the Gulf oil spill.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appointed Hayes to organize and serve as lead for his Interior team and a primary liaison with the White House and other agency leaders in addressing the oil spill. 

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