Accident or negligence? Unforseen or just ignored? We need solid information to make a solid decision

It has now officially been 60 days since the explosion aboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico and the start of an undersea oil spill that continues to put – what? – 10’s or 100’s of thousands of gallons of oil per day into the Gulf. While the last attempt at capping the well was partially successful and they’re actually capturing a significant amount of oil that would otherwise be going into the water, the spill continues and the general sense is now that it’s going to continue until a relief well is completed in August to divert the flow away into a controlled release. Will it work? We’re told it will but how confident are we?

I remain amazed by how much about this event we don’t know. By now the story about how the explosion occurred is fairly well known by anyone who’s been listening. A pocket of methane, a substance that takes on an icy slush consistency at the temperatures and depths we’re talking about, got heated to the point where it started to transform into a gas. As it did so, it began to put upward pressure on the riser mechanisms that formed the drilling conduit. As it rose, it picked up heat and transformed to a gas more quickly which increased both its volume and the speed of ascent. Which, by the way, increased the pressure it was putting on the riser’s compartment seals. When it reached a critical point of volume and speed, it broke through those seals. Continuing up the riser, it blew out all of the safety seals and broke though to the rig’s compartments, eventually reaching someplace where an open ignition source detonated the methane. The rig exploded, killing 11 men and mortally damaging the ship. She sunk in short order and the damage caused, either by the rising methane or the sinking ship (possibly both), broke open the riser in multiple places. The blowout preventer, a device specifically designed to halt a runaway gusher, failed to do its job and oil began pouring into the Gulf.

That’s the story. To this date, I do not recall seeing a report that corroborated any of that beyond saying that’s what they think happened. Very little of anything that’s happened since has any greater degree of certainty.

Something caused the methane to get out of control. We’re drilling in other places that are working the same environment. So are other countries and in waters that are considerably more hazardous than the Gulf (think north Atlantic). Did this operation do something different than the rest did? Did they follow the same procedure or did they cut corners on something? There have been accusations that they did such as the one made last night by BP’s partner in this well. They claim BP used a cheaper, more risky well design. Did they? BP and the Obama administration are actively keeping reporters out of the area. Since we’re relying on Obama/BP to tell us what’s really going on, are they, in fact, doing so? Is BP making the right moves and are they being upfront with the status of the situation in their communications with the administration? How would we know?

I was watching a clip from FoxNews where former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani addressed the matter and he made a couple of very valid points. First, when an experienced executive has an emergency fire up he does everything he can to maximize his knowledge base. That means you assemble a team of experts and you don’t do it from the pool of people already engaged in the emergency. Just as you would with a dire medical situation, you seek a second opinion (or a 3rd or a 4th) from other professionals. You make sure you have clear, unfettered access to the information needed to make the decisions you need to or to assess whether the decisions made by others are sound. President Obama did none of this. His defenders are trying to waive off the fact that for days following the explosion Obama dithered and spent his time, literally, on the golf courses or yukking it up with TV personalities. He didn’t even so much as contact the leadership of the company in question for weeks following the spill and even then only did so because he was getting massacred in the press (something else that was a new experience for him, apparently.) And now, as always, he’s gotten on the TV to, supposedly, address the situation and wound up pressing his legislative agenda instead. Oh, and just to show he’s really concerned, he’s appointing a czar and a commission.

Well, whoop-de-do, Mr. President. You’re only about 58 days late on that one and you should bloody well be assembling a team of experts who knows what the hell they’re talking about instead of a group of politicians and bureaucrats who can attempt to stop the leak in the Gulf by talking it to death. We need real professionals to put aside the matter of who’s going to pay for what and who’s going to wind up in what court room. We need them to ignore all of that and answer some very specific, very professional questions:

  • What is the actual flow rate still leaking into the Gulf?
  • How much is actually being captured by the measures taken thus far?
  • What is the real likelihood that the relief well will actually stop the leak?
  • Is the relief well being drilled at the best rate possible? (Are they being over or under in their estimation of a completion date?)
  • Are the measures being taken to contain the spill effective? Are they enough? (Do we need more oil boom and is the travesty of Packgen’s having miles of boom ready to go but sitting in warehouses as bad as it sounds? Is their boom up to standard or not?)
  • Are (were) the measures taken by BP to stop the leak reasonable in their chances of success? Would any of the assets of the federal government improve the chances?
  • Is there anything we could try now to stop the leak or are we really in a situation where we just have to wait until the August completion of the relief well?
  • Are there any measures we can take regarding containment/cleanup that haven’t been, either through legal red tape or availability of gear?

These are the question professionals need to answer about the current operations. Either in parallel or immediately following those, we need to know these answers:

  • Is the explanation of what happened to cause this spill borne out by the facts? If not, what really happened?
  • Why did the blowout preventer not do the job? Was there something that was supposed to be in place that wasn’t or is there a better design available?
  • Was this foreseeable? If so, did the operators simply miss the signs or did they ignore them?
  • Were industry best practices in place and being followed? If so, what do we need to implement right now to prevent this from happening again? If not, what was not being done, specifically?
  • Was the response to the emergency reasonably timely? Was there any way to speed up that response?

Whatever else the Obama administration has done or not done to date, they can certainly assemble a team of the industry’s best to answer these questions. There is nothing stopping them from doing this right now, today. The only reason you wouldn’t is if your priority is not in dealing with this emergency but rather using it as an excuse to get something you want. Let’s see which way the administration goes on this.