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Senate Committee Hearing on BP Oil Disaster

9:55 am in Uncategorized by Scarecrow

Watching the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the BP Oil Disaster it’s hard not to be discouraged by the spectacle. Even before the Committee gets too deep into questioning the executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton, the Senators’ questions of the setup panel inadvertently revealed they are as much a part of the problem as the companies they’re trying to nail with responsibility.

That became obvious during the initial panel composed of a Texas A&M Associate Professor and former drilling engineer, F.E. Beck, and Elmer Danenberger, who until January was the head of the Minerals Management Service responsible for overseeing off-shore oil drilling.

Beck was competent and helpful in describing industry practices. He discussed general drilling procedures and safeguards, but he disclaimed expertise in deepwater drilling, meaning the Committee had the right idea but the wrong witness.

Former MMS director Danenberger, on the other hand, came off as a perfect example of someone you’d never allow to be a regulator, as the questioning by Ron Wyden revealed.


Danenberger represents the view that if something awful hasn’t happened to you, you don’t need to think about the worst that could happen. So you don’t have to plan for it, let alone consider the possibility of catastrophic failure and its consequences when you’re deciding whether to allow the activity in the first place. That is, by the way, the essence of US energy policy, now fully embraced by the Obama Administration and most in Congress. Danenberger represents how our government thinks.

But the problems with government oversight of a dangerous industry with plenty of money and influence were best illustrated by the Senators themselves. With only a couple of possible exceptions (Sen. Bob Mendendez of NJ; Ron Wyden of Oregon), the Senators start with the conclusion that should be waiting for evidence to support it: that no matter how dangerous this activity is to the lives of workers or how devastating it may become to the environment and economy of the Gulf, we’re going to continue doing this, because we’re not prepared to do something different.

So we heard Mary Landrieu (D. La) use all of her time reading a statement about how much her state depends on oil industry jobs, how many wells we’ve drilled that didn’t blow up (as though somehow that mattered), and how much oil we get from the region. She told us none of the many spills to date had been this big, as though that was supposed to be reassuring. Not once did Sen. Landrieu tell us how may people in the Gulf region depend on the health of the Gulf or how many communities in her state and others could be decimated by this catastrophe.

Senator John Barrasso (R. Wyoming), not willing to ask whether the technologies we have for deepwater drilling may not be reliable enough to trust with the life of the Gulf, wanted to know instead whether terrorists might have had an opportunity to sabotage the blowout preventer? The witnesses essentially dismissed the notion, dealing a blow to Russ Limbaugh; the equipment failed, so now Barrasso has to deal with it.

But the prize for stooge of the morning must go to Senator Jim Risch, (R. Idaho), who began by saying we must and will continue deepwater drilling, a view probably held by many who are unwilling to think we might move in a different direction. So what to do about the inevitable accidents we have to accept?

Risch stated emphatically that since government is incompetent — Ronald Reagan said that, so it must be true, and if not, let’s make it so — it’s wrong to entrust government with the task of "provide for the public welfare." Since a government regulatory effort so small it can be drowned in a bathtub can’t be trusted to perform the public health and safety function, Risch reasoned, why shouldn’t we let the industry form a private organization to set and oversee safety standards? He doesn’t seem to realize that industry had already gone a long ways towards turning MMS into that model.

A second Senate Committee hearing continues this afternoon with questioning of the industry execs.

More:

AP: Oil spill testimony to Congress: Not our fault

HuffPost/Dan Froomkin, Fingerpointing

McClatchy, US Agency let oil industry write offshore drilling rules

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Halliburton Presentation May Explain Horizon Oil Rig Explosion and Fire

1:53 pm in BP oil disaster, Energy by Scarecrow

What More Can Halliburton Tell Us About the Horizon Oil Blowout and Its Risks?

A publicly available Halliburton PowerPoint presentation from last November might tell us a lot about what could have caused the oil blowout, fire and massive oil gushing at the Horizon rig.

Suppose you’re that division of Halliburton that has the dangerous job of "cementing" the drilling hole and the gaps between the hole and pipe. You’ve done this lots of times in shallow water wells, but you’ve learned through previous experience in deep water there’s a particularly difficult problem having to do with the presence of gas that has seeped to the ocean floor and been captured in essentially "frozen" crystallized formations.

The problem is that when you drill into these formations, and then try to inject cement into the hole/gaps to prevent leakage, the curing process for that creates heat. That heat can, if not controlled, cause the gas to escape the frozen crystals. If a lot of gas is released all at once, as could happen during the cement/curing process, it can cause a blowout where the cementing is occurring, or force gas and/or oil up the pipeline to the drilling rig on the surface. And the heat created by the process may be just enough to ignite the gas [or more likely, a spark at the rig -- see comments 81, 85], causing the explosion and fire.

Did this happen at the Horizon rig? And if Halliburton already knew about this problem months (years) ago, and knew the risks it might create, why are we just now learning about this?

From Halliburton’s presentation (large pdf), page 10, last November (my bold):

Challenges

• Shallow water flow may occur during or after cement job
Under water blow out has happened
• Gas flow may occur after a cement job in deepwater environments that contain major hydrate zones.
• Destabilization of hydrates after the cement job is confirmed by downhole cameras.
• The gas flow could slow down in hours to days if the de- stabilization is not severe.
• However, the consequences could be more severe in worse cases.

Page 13 lists the design objectives but then concedes they can’t all be met at once:

Deepwater Well Objectives
• Cement slurry should be placed in the entire annulus with no losses
• Temperature increase during slurry hydration should not destabilize hydrates
• There should be no influx of shallow water or gas into the annulus
• The cement slurry should develop strength in the shortest time after placement
Conditions in deepwater wells are not
conducive to achieving all of these
objectives simultaneously

The presentation goes on to explain various options for dealing with the risks and assess the relative merits and costs. What’s interesting is that Halliburton appears to have been working at the edge of the technology and was not certain what would happen. Most experience was in shallower waters and no one was certain what would happen in deep waters. It conducted tests, but it’s not clear how complete or realistic those tests were or how costs factored into the choice of techniques. From page 23:

Destabilization of hydrates during cementing and production in deepwater environments is a challenge to the safety and economics

I think we’re about to learn a lot more about how cement cures and interacts with gas-locked crystaline formations in deep water drilling.

Update: See, alternative explanations at The Oil Drum, Tech Talk: Revisiting Oil Well Pressures and Blow Out Preventers . . .. Reacting to a discussion of the cementing issues in the [May 1] LA Times, the author says "it is hard to see from what is known, that this was a cause in this case," though not all commenters there seem convinced.

h/t to Cynthia Kouril who seems to know about how cement cures underwater — tunnels into New York — and found the presentation.

Halliburton presenation below:

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