Friday, May 28, 2010

BP: Centralizing responsibility

BP, the British-based octoconglomerate that leased the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig platform that exploded late on April 20, announced a while back that it intends to seek to have the various lawsuits against it centralized in one judge.

The company wants the 70-plus class action lawsuits over the Gulf oil spill — lawsuits from fishermen, property owners and others — consolidated into one mother of all class actions, and brought before U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes of Houston, to address pretrial matters, the Associated Press reported on May 10.

But on the basis of a hearing Friday in Louisiana, BP might well do to be more concerned about another kind of centralizer — specifically a piece of hardware used in the safe operation and maintenance of offshore oil platforms. The number of those devices in use on the Deepwater Horizon rig the night of April 20 is the issue.

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Here’s an excerpt from a prepared statement from Tim Probert, the president of global business lines, and the chief health, safety and environmental officer for Halliburton, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on May 11th.
It should be noted that cement is used at specific designated spots and is not designed to be a complete barrier through the entire wellbore.

Cement can be used to isolate formation fluids, to prevent movement of these fluids between formations and to bond and support the casing … There are many external factors that impact the design and execution of a cement job. These include the variability in the hole geometry, relative location of hydrocarbon zones, hydrocarbon content and the prior condition of the wellbore and associated fluids as determined by the drilling fluid provider. Casing strings are typically run with devices to centralize the casing concentrically in the wellbore and prevent incomplete displacement of drilling fluid, or "channeling". ...

The centralizer placement on the production casing, the drilling fluid conditioning program prior to cementing and the cement slurry and placement design used for this well were implemented as directed by the well owner. However, as shown in the attached diagram, by design there is no continuous cement column throughout the entire wellbore.
It may or may not be significant in the long run, but on Friday at a C-SPAN-broadcast hearing of a joint Coast Guard-Minerals Management Service investigation, in Kenner, La., an exchange between Donald Godwin, a Halliburton attorney, and Mark Hafle, a BP senior drilling engineer, hinged on the number of centralizers in place at the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20:

GODWIN: Are you aware that Halliburton recommended that 21 centralizers be used in this well?

HAFLE: I’m aware that the final number agreed upon had, perhaps, 21 centralizers. I can’t remember the exact number, but it was in that ballpark.

GODWIN: How many centralizers were in use in the well at the time it blew up?

HAFLE: To be honest, I’m not sure how many centralizers they ran.

GODWIN: Are you aware that that number was six?

HAFLE: I’ve heard various discussions that that was the case, yes.

GODWIN: Thank you sir. Nothing further.

You can make the case, of course, that Godwin’s line of inquiry had the express intent of enabling Halliburton to cover its ass, proving that by accident or by design, Halliburton’s recommendation was ignored by BP, which leased the well. In this, and by the admission of a senior engineer from BP, Halliburton may well have succeeded.

But in Hafle’s hazy but still significant recall, there’s additional grounds to suspect BP of gross negligence, by not implementing Halliburton recommendations and contractually compelling Halliburton to use six centralizers instead of 21 in the well under its control.

Why would such a recommendation be ignored? And how many other safety recommendations were ignored or overlooked by BP before the night of April 20? In the highly reactive time-is-money culture of oil production, BP’s decision to operate the Mississippi Canyon well despite the recommended number of centralizers was almost certainly a financial shortcut, nothing more or less.

Like was said, it may not matter much in the greater scheme of things. But as the case of negligence against BP begins to gain momentum, and it will, watch for the centralizer issue to gain more attention as the various corporate players here start jockeying for position ... looking to centralize responsibility for this worst environmental tragedy in the history of the United States.

Elizabeth Birnbaum, the director of the federal Minerals Management Service, was fired on Friday.

Image credits: BP logo: BP plc. Protech CRB Centralizers: Halliburton Web site. BP protest in L.A.: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press.

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