I wrote a letter to the editor and it was published yesterday in the Valley News. In some ways, my thoughts on this topic are a continuation of my thoughts about the strontium-containing fish from yesterday's post.
I'm thinking about the Gulf more and more these days. I think about the time I spent there in the geopressured-geothermal areas. I think about what's happening now. We're all thinking about the Gulf. How can we ignore a tragedy of such magnitude?
Here's my letter to the editor and supplementary material.
The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion did not have to happen.
I have some experience with geothermal drilling, which uses similar technologies to those used in oil and gas drilling. One of the most important men on a drill site was the Mud Man. He was responsible for formulating a drilling mud which matched many important and sometimes contradictory requirements. The mud had to be heavy: the weight of the mud kept the pressure on the bottom of the well, and the heavy column of mud was the first line of protection against blowouts. The mud also had to flow easily: the consistency of the mud must allow it to circulate and bring up the cut rock from the drilling. If the mud didn't circulate the drill bit could freeze up amidst its own cuttings. The mud had to be capable of withstanding the pressure, temperature, gases, and chemistry of that particular well. It took years of experience to be a mud man, and nobody on a well-site argued with that man about how to formulate or use the mud.
On this rig, it looks like the owners felt they could overrule the mud man and other experts, despite all kinds of problems showing up with the well. They ordered the mud man to substitute light seawater for heavy mud. They didn't take the care necessary for switching from drilling to production. Technical people objected, but BP put "completing the drilling" ahead of the structural integrity of the very platform they were standing on.
I like to give people benefit of the doubt when an accident happens. Not in this case. People died and ecologies will be affected for many many years.
Some background: In the hours before the blast, the drillers and the BP "company man" had this disagreement, reported in the Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Brown said Transocean's crew leaders—including the rig operator's top manager, Jimmy W. Harrell—strongly objected to a decision by BP's top representative, or "company man," over how to start removing heavy drilling fluid and replacing it with lighter seawater from a riser pipe connected to the well head. Such pipes act as conduits between the rig and the wellhead at the ocean floor, and carry drilling fluid in and out of the well.
It wasn't clear what Mr. Harrell objected to specifically about BP's instructions, but the rig's primary driller, Dewey Revette, and tool pusher, Miles Randall Ezell, both of Transocean, also disagreed with BP, Mr. Brown said. However, BP was in charge of the operation and the BP representative prevailed, Mr. Brown said.
"The company man was basically saying, 'This is how it's gonna be,' " said Mr. Brown, who didn't recall the name of the BP representative in question.
Mr. Harrell "pretty much grumbled in his manner, 'I guess that is what we have those pinchers for,' " Mr. Brown testified. He said it was a reference to the shear rams on the drilling operation's blowout preventer, which are supposed to sever the main pipe in case of a disaster.
The blowout preventer failed to stop gas from rising to the surface, causing the explosion, BP has said.
Mr. Harrell hasn't testified and declined repeated requests for comment. Donald Vidrine, listed on Transocean's documents as BP's "company man" on April 20, couldn't be reached. Mr. Revette was among the 11 workers who were killed.
There may have been another factor operating. I experienced it at the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant. I call it the "VIP Effect." At Ludington we had tested the first machine at low and mid levels of the upper reservoir. There was every expectation of success at the top level. VIPs from the utility and equipment manufacturer were scheduled to arrive for the final tests, and triumphant celebration. The Startup Engineer for the water wheel - the pump/turbine and governor, made a tiny change in the controls so the movement of the gates that control the water would operate smoothly and look perfect for the VIPs.
You know the rest. The tiny change had an unintended effect and caused damage to the machine which took a month or more to repair. A wiped Kingsbury Thrust bearing for a 1000 ton vertical shaft machine!
Sound like BP's oil rig? The VIPs were there. Was a decision made to impress them?
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