Aug 08 2010

Whose negligence caused more damage – BP’s or the Coast Guard’s?

Published by at 2:26 pm under All General Discussions

Given my background in the oil industry I have followed this story more intensely than most, and the lack of any quality reporting on how this disaster developed has been a continuing outrage to me.   A few blogs have had some very good inside explanations of the mistakes BP made at several points along the process – the Oil Drum being the best I’ve seen – but to anyone who hasn’t made a great effort to try and track this down, it’s just been presented as some kind of mysterious thing that happened just because Oil is Bad and so is everyone in it.

Now the well has finally been plugged with cement, the spill is over and the oil is mostly dissipated.  So can we finally talk about how this went so wrong?

Allow me to lead with 3 points that have just been barely whispered about, and yet which should be blindingly obvious truths:

1)  The oil spill was NOT caused by either the downhole blowout or the resulting explosion on the rig.  Even after both of those events had happened, and acknowledging the tragic loss of life, there was still every reason to think that the disaster could be contained without a major spill until the well was sealed off.

2)      The oil spill WAS caused by the sinking of a rig which was in no danger of sinking until it was hit by a grossly negligent, chaotic, and functionally incompetent first response which had no chance of doing any good but instead magnified the damage by an order of magnitude, if not more.

3)      The first response was negligent, chaotic, and functionally incompetent because the Coast Guard abdicated it’s legally mandated responsibility to take charge in an offshore disaster like this, and in fact did not become involved at all until days after a floating platform, critical to all future actions, had been sunk for no reason at all.

News item:  The Coast Guard has gathered evidence it failed to follow its own firefighting policy during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and is investigating whether the chaotic spraying of tons of salt water by private boats contributed to sinking the ill-fated oil rig, according to interviews and documents.

(this link is the source of most of the quotes in this article)

Allow me to expand on those points.

Point 1:  This is not meant to take any of the blame away from BP for their original negligence.   It would take another long post just to detail all of their errors in which they engaged in practices far below the Standard Operating Procedures of most exploration companies.   This began with an incompetent well design before drilling even started, and was followed by incompetent execution and decision making at almost every step along the way, especially during each of the cementing procedures. This culminated with BP’s Houston office reportedly ignoring a direct warning 3 hours before the blowout from the driller on site that the rig was likely to blow up if they went forward with their fluid displacement procedure. I, for one, strongly believe that the execs in charge of this decision making process should be charged with criminally negligent homicide, because their bungling directly led to the deaths of 11 innocent men.

BUT – once the blowout had happened, once the explosion had happened, once the rig had been evacuated (very quickly after the explosion), what was the situation?  Yes, there was a lot of oil and gas blowing out of the center of that rig, and it was on fire.   Yet at this point there was almost NO spillage going into the ocean, because all the oil and gas was being burned as it spewed out of the top of the 5000 foot riser, which stretched from the rig down to the seafloor!

If you will look at the history of oilfield firefighting, you will find that in the case of a blowout it has almost always been advantageous to keep the wellhead burning until just before an attempt is made to cap the well, because unburned oil and gas is *far* more dangerous than the burnt byproducts.   And on this rig, the fire was in the center of the rig, removed from the flotation structures, the four great legs on which the platform rested.   As bad as the explosion was, it had done absolutely no damage at all to the flotation structures – at worst, it may have melted some of the seals at the very top of those structures, 100 feet above the water line.  (although those doors may have been left open in the wild evacuation that took place)

In short, the rig had become an unmanned platform which supported a large flare in the center.  BUT this was a stable situation!  The fire was certainly not going to spread under the water line, so once the evacuation was over the only effect of the fire was to burn off the oil and gas coming up from below, preventing  a widespread contamination.   There was no time limit as to how long this situation could have been maintained – although the drilling tower at the center of the rig collapsed quite early, the primary structural elements of the rig were probably in no danger of failing no matter how long the fire burned.

Point 2.  So what effect did the effort to fight the fire have?  Follow this link to a page of photos of the rig and the firefighting efforts.  Notice especially the increasing list as time went on.

Several supply ships stood just off the rig and pumped tens of thousands of gallons of seawater over it for 2 days.   This seawater did absolutely nothing to stop the fire, since it is virtually impossible to put out a high pressure oil fueled fire with water no matter how much you pump.  (and everyone in the industry knows this)  But it appears that the seals were open on at least 2 of the flotation legs, allowing the seawater to flow in from the top and eventually causing the platform to flip over and sink.   As with any ocean going vessel, the only thing worse than pumping a vessel full of water is pumping only one side full of water – the vessel goes to the bottom even faster that way.  And investigators are now acknowledging that the spill did not start until the rig was sunk.

… the riser pipe from which the majority of BP’s oil spewed did not start leaking until after the rig sank. Experts and some lawsuits have openly tied the sinking of the drilling vessel to the severity of the leak.

So why did the supply boats continue to pump seawater on top of that rig?

Was it to put the fire out?  No, that was impossible with that type of fire, especially with that much pressure behind the flare.   Everyone involved knew that.

Was it to save human life?  No, within a couple of hours of the explosion, after the final survivors had been evacuated, it was recognized that there was no one possibly left alive on that platform.

Was it because they couldn’t see what was happening?  No, as the platform began to list badly, it was clear to anyone what was happening.

Was it to stop the rig from melting and sinking?  This option may seem to have a shred of logic, but it still comes down to trying to avoid the rig sinking in two weeks by sinking it deliberately in two days.  Insane.

There was no rational reason for those boats to have stood by and pumped water onto that rig until it sank, but they did.  Why?  Some would jump off into some kind of conspiracy story here, but I think the truth is much simpler and in many ways much worse:

Point 3:  The supply ships stood by and pumped water until the rig sank because each ship’s captain believed it was his duty to fight any fire as long as possible without considering the consequences, unless and until he was ordered to do something different.   But no one was ever placed in charge – no one ever gave any orders at all.   So the supply ships, without any orders or direction and operating in the complete absence of any authority, pumped and pumped and pumped until the rig sank.   Then they could go home and it became someone else’s problem.   The country’s problem.

Who was supposed to be in charge?  BP was nominally in charge, but they didn’t own those supply ships, and there’s every indication that BP went into absolute panic mode once the explosion happened and quit saying anything to anyone.   Yes, their negligence continued here – but they weren’t the ones who were legally tasked with coordinating the response to an offshore rig fire, especially since the rig belonged to Transocean.

So was Transocean responsible?   Just like BP, Transocean went into clam up/shut down mode as soon as the rig exploded, and they began a campaign of trying to prove that they didn’t know nothing about nobody and that whatever happened, it wasn’t their fault.  (oddly, that seems so far to have been working)   They were running away from this situation so fast they certainly didn’t want to take charge of the first response.  I think they should have, but they can argue this legally wasn’t their responsibility.

So who’s responsibility WAS it to take charge of the first response?

The Coast Guard’s official maritime rescue manual — updated just seven months before the BP accident — recommends Guard personnel avoid participating in firefighting aboard a rig. Instead, the manual requires Coast Guard responders to set up an “Incident Command System” and assign an expert, such as a fire marshal, to lead the efforts to extinguish the blaze.

“If the Incident Command System (ICS) structure is used in responding to incidents involving fires on vessels or at waterfront facilities, a firefighting group should be established to coordinate local authorities responsible for fighting the fires,” the September 2009 manual states.

Was this done?   Nope.  In spite of its own policies manual, and in spite of the fact that THEY are the organization over any other who is tasked with taking charge in the case of a disaster like this, the Coast Guard did absolutely nothing until after the rig had already been sunk.

Kevin Robb, a civilian Coast Guard search and rescue specialist who acted as the first watch commander the night of the accident, testified that there was no attempt by the Coast Guard Command Center in New Orleans to designate a fire marshal to take charge.

“Did you, sir, make any efforts on that first night when you responded to the Command Center to identify a certified fire marshal to oversee the firefighting efforts?” Robb was asked at the hearing on May 11, according to a transcript reviewed by the Center.

“No, sir, I did not,” he answered.

“Are you aware of anyone else at the Coast Guard Command Center that made such an effort?

“No, sir, not to my knowledge.”

“Do you know, if at any point, over the next several days there was ever any designation of an authority, a governmental authority to oversee or coordinate the firefighting effort for this rig?” Robb was asked.

“No, sir, I don’t,” replied Robb.

In fact, Robb told the inquiry there were no Coast Guard boats on the scene capable of fighting the massive rig fire. Hours after firefighting began, the rig began listing and eventually sank at midday on April 22, Coast Guard incident logs show.


“So what we’re looking at here is maybe if there’s no coordination out there, no direction out there, we may be throwing water onto a disabled vessel that may lead to this sinking; is that correct? Is that the potential?” Nguyen asked Robb.

The Coast Guard officer pressed further. “Well, if the firefighting efforts are not coordinated and we’re putting water onto a disabled vessel, there’s the possibility that no coordinated action may result in the sinking of the vessel; is that correct, any vessel?”

“That is exactly correct,” Robb testified.

Note that as long as the rig stayed afloat, the 5000 foot long riser between the rig and the ocean floor stayed intact and in place.  As long as that riser was intact, there were a host of options to intercept it at shallow depths and make some attempt to regain control of the well.  But once the rig sank, it took all 5000 feet of the riser down to the ocean floor with it, resulting in a sea floor that was nothing but a tangled mass of wreckage that was almost impossible to get to.

The spill began not when the well exploded, but when the rig sank.  And the rig only sank because the Coast Guard failed miserably at its job by refusing to take any responsibility even though their own manual directed them to do so.  So, whose negligence actually caused more damage – BP’s or the Coast Guard’s?   You tell me.

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Whose negligence caused more damage – BP’s or the Coast Guard’s?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Suhr Mesa, AJ Strata. AJ Strata said: new: Whose negligence caused more damage – BP’s or the Coast Guard’s? […]

  2. ivehadit says:

    I have sent this to all my friends. Great post, WWS. Thank you for taking the time to report all this.

  3. tarpon says:

    It’s clear that filling a burning ship with water was a really bad idea. If the ship(rig) hadn’t sunk, the oil may not have spilled. I wonder if they even knew it was floating?

    Just another one of big government’s success stories, how incompetence causes the biggest problems.

  4. BarbaraS says:

    There were many bungles in this debacle and most of them occured after the disaster. However, it seems odd that Transunion is off the hook entirely since they are the owners of the well and thus built the thing. It is a known fact that they cut corners all along the way and the government let them do it. The government did not check and make sure all the safety features were made. I don’t know how much they were culpable but they should be subjected to some responsibility.

    But, what is going on? Is this administration rotten all the way through the ranks? Is every department incompetent? Or, are the heads of these department getting their orders from the top? It certainly sounded like it with all the obstruction goint on during the cleanup. It is strange that the Coast Guard is having problems doing their job when they were pretty efficient before Jan 20, 2009. Very odd that they made no effort at all when they had to be aware this was their responsibility, in fact, they announced in the beginning that there was no spill.

  5. granitroc says:

    I concur with the other readers, good review!

    I wonder about one of your premises however. Even if the supply ships had not poured water onto the rig, how long would it have been before it would have floated away pulling apart the riser? These vessels rely on global positioning equipment, to center the rig. With all the crew gone and fires raging nearby, is it likely the platform would have continued propelling itself automatically and avoiding the riser from being pulled apart?

  6. Mike M. says:

    Fire at sea is never good. That’s why the Navy puts such emphasis on firefighting in damage control training. There are no good options, only Bad…and Worse.

  7. kathie says:

    WWS, in a situation like this, who is responsible for calling the Coast Guard? Is the Coast Guard on the rigs at sea, or are they stationed someplace?

  8. crosspatch says:

    I recall that it was a crew member of the rig that made a distress call to the CG some time after the explosion(s). She was on the bridge, realized that nobody had yet bothered to place the call, she got on the radio and announced an emergency and “uncontrollable” fire. She was instantly admonished by whoever was in command on the bridge with “I didn’t authorize you to do that”.

  9. ~AV~ says:

    I’m in Houston and work for an O&G company that also does well control and blowout work.

    Everything stated is spot on.

    Had they NOT sank the rig they could have dispatched a crew to go below and intervened at a depth with HUMANS and other equipment.

    Imagine HOW much worst this could have been if it were sour gas. If this was a HIGH level H2S well…spewing and they put the fire out…can’t even imagine the additional problems that would have occured.

    When we are on land and we have a blowout that is spewing gas…and we know it has high levels of H2S…we IGNITE it, to burn it off.

    H2S…nasty stuff…this well could have been worst.

  10. WWS says:

    re: granitroc’s question: you’re right, all the onboard computerized systems were knocked out by the fire and there would have been problems with keeping the rig centered. On the other hand, the ocean was relatively calm this summer with no major storms since the sinking, and I believe that some clever engineers would have found a way to kluge together a system with towing cables and tugs that could have counteracted the effects of current and wind. Of course we’ll never know for sure.

    The point remains this – due to the disastrous actions of the first responders and the absence of any coordinated effort, we went to the absolute worst case scenario within 2 days and thus never even had the chance to work on any other possibilities.

  11. lurker9876 says:

    Curious here…

    If the Coast Guard had not stepped in to dump all that water, could we have seen a more contained situation with less oil spilled into the Gulf? And in less time?

  12. […] Rubin des more… Quotes of the day – 08/09/2010 Chaos. more… Whose negligence caused more damage – BP’s or the Coast Guard’s? – 08/08/2010 Given my background in the oil industry I have followed this […]

  13. daniel ortega says:

    I think the rig sank after Skanky ordered it to be sunk.

    I think the well was miraculously sealed when he realized there was no political capital, no cap n trade,

    he beat a retreat.

    And no, I would never call the President of the US “skanky”.