Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Conservative Reply to the Oil Spill commission's Report

January 20, 2011 marked the nine month anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon accident. The President’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (the “Oil Spill Commission” or OSC) has recently issued its final report. The offshore drilling moratorium has nominally been lifted, but the issuance of new permits has been negligible amid concerns regarding spill response plans. The government’s last spider hole to hide within is a legitimate subject of debate, how should we deal with the next spill? The co-chairmen of the commission just reported to Congress. How should conservatives challenge the report? Consider these points…

The report’s two most important parts are Chapters 4 “The Macondo Well and the Blowout” and Chapter 5 “Response and Containment”. In essence they become, how did the BP and its contractors screw things up so badly that the accident occurred in the first place, and how did the government screw up the ad hoc spill response under the authority of the presidentially appointed National Incident Commander? The commission was funded by the Secretary of Energy to investigate and its report definitely show signs that the staff was loathe to criticize the hand that fed them, particularly when the Secretary of Energy was the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Team and interposed himself into the chain of command to stop the “top kill” effort in late May. I have no such compunctions. Co-Chairman William Reilly tried to assure the press that this was no “Obama’s Katrina”, the Congress and the public will make that determination.

There is not much new in Chapter 4. They repeat the finding from previous public meetings that the blowout occurred due to a failure of the cement in the shoe track section of the long string production casing. That failure provided a flow path from the formation downward in the annular space between the rock face of the borehole and the outside of the production casing, thence U-tubing up inside the shoe track and then upward via the production casing straight to the wellhead, blowout preventer (BOP) and riser to the Deepwater Horizon (DWH). Those conclusions are similar to those BP presented in their Bly Report and have not been effectively challenged by either Transocean or Halliburton, which have yet to issue their own investigative reports. In their defense, one is sympathetic to their complaints about the government’s custody of two vital pieces of evidence, the BOP and the fragments of cement that landed on the deck of the Damon Bankston, which was alongside the DWH went the well started to blow out. So there remain some very important facts yet to be confirmed, but the outline of the accident time line is getting clearer. The issue is why the government’s two investigations, the OCS and the Marine Board Investigation (MBI) have been on such a glacial pace to bring forth the key evidence? Which brings us to Chapter 5 and beyond.

After heaping well deserved criticism upon BP and its contractors in Chapter 4, the staff found it impossible to objectively evaluate the boss in Chapter 5. The report states that the only intervention strategy in BP’s pre-existing response plan was to drill a relief well. That is all well and good but ignores the fact that BP started introducing a whole series of alternative efforts to first contain and then intervene in the well. The “top kill” option was under active implementation by May 5th as reported in AT.

An impartial observer should note that the government latched on to the relief well option and doubled down by requiring BP to utilize a second drill ship to drill a backup relief well, when that ship might have been more useful with the direct well intervention effort. The best projected date for the relief well to intersect the Macondo was mid August when, as things turned out, the well had been shut in a month earlier on July 15th. Which brings us to the poor quality of the engineering decision making by the National Incident Command, a weakness the commission admits. Dave Barry of the Washington Post summed it up this way

The perfect symbol for the awfulness of 2010 was the BP
oil spill
, which oozed up from the depths and spread, totally out of
control, like some kind of hideous uncontrollable metaphor. (Or "Jersey Shore.")
The scariest thing about the spill was, nobody in charge seemed to know what to
do about it. Time and again, top political leaders personally flew down to the
Gulf of Mexico to look at the situation firsthand and hold press availabilities.
And yet somehow, despite these efforts, the oil continued to leak. This forced
us to face the disturbing truth that even top policy thinkers with postgraduate
degrees from Harvard University -- Harvard University! -- could not stop it.
The leak was eventually plugged by non-policy people using machinery of some
kind. But by then our faith in our leaders had been shaken…

The administration deployed “top policy thinkers” not engineers (AKA the non-policy people using machinery). Even the OCS now regrets that decision and has called for the regulators (BOEMRE nee MMS) to find a well paid engineering hotshot to lead the organization in the future. Conservatives should call that bet and raise them one. Chairman Reilly has been involved in the Exxon Valdez accident, the Kuwait oil fires and now the Deepwater Horizon. Somewhere along the way one hopes he has run into enough capable engineers to know one when he sees one.

Let’s start with the greatest well intervention of all time, the Kuwait oil fires. Saddam Hussein’s troops sabotaged over 750 wells setting most of them alight. The then EPA Administrator, Chairman Reilly, had contact with the specialized well control contractors called in the fight the fires. The first thing to recognize is that the oil companies, such as BP, contract well control out, they have limited in house knowledge or capability. The most famous of those contractors was Red Adair, whose legend was so big he had to be played by John Wayne in the film Hellfighters. When those august experts arrived in country they sent out a public appeal for suggestions as the task was so daunting as to make even them blanch. An interesting factoid, unknown to the general public, is that both the first and last fires extinguished were deliberately relit. The first well fire was initially fought by the standard water deluge technique which failed, so the contractor Boots & Coots tried one of those suggestions now known as raising the plume. It worked so well that they relit the fire to try the technique several times to learn its subtleties.

Chicago Tribune-April 8, 1991
Author: Associated Press.

A Texas firefighting team on Sunday extinguished the first of 500 oil-well fires set by Iraqi troops, and declared a ``small victory`` that could mark a turning point in the operation. The team from Houston-based Boots & Coots, using liquid nitrogen and
water, extinguished a small fire on its second attempt Sunday morning.

``I think it`s very important,`` Boots Hansen said of his team`s achievement. He said the method-injecting nitrogen into the fire through a large cylinder attached to a giant bulldozer while spraying water at the base of the cylinder-was less time-consuming than other methods, such as the use of dynamite.

``It`s a small victory,`` said Larry Flak, a Houston oil engineer coordinating the entire firefighting effort. ``Now we can go from well to well to well without a lot of rigging up or preparation.`` Sunday`s operation was experimental. After the initial success, the team
re-lit the oil spewing from the well a few more times, and again put the fire out to refine their techniques. Eight days earlier, Boots & Coots failed in an attempt to put out a blaze using only water. Hansen estimated that the nitrogen method, which deprives the fire of needed oxygen, probably could be used on half the fires set by Iraq in late February, before allied troops liberated Kuwait. Flak said the Iraqis blew up about 600 oil wells in Kuwait. Most have been on fire since then, blackening the sky across vast areas of the emirate, while about 80 wells were spewing oil without burning. More than 20 of those wells have been capped. Kuwaiti officials estimate they are losing 6 million barrels of oil a day, worth more than $100 million. Fighting the fires will cost an additional $1 million to $2 million a day. Oil Minister Rasheed al-Amiri says it could take two or more years to quell the fires

By the end of eight months, the innovations and experience of the contractors had become such a part of the effort that after the last fire was extinguished, it was relit in order for the Emir of Kuwait to have his chance to put it out by merely throwing a switch while appearing on TV. The political leader of Kuwait could now join the pantheon of heroes alongside John Wayne, and he did do one vital task, he signed the checks.

In only eight months, 750 wild wells had been capped, very few of them by use of a relief well. The technique of choice was put out the fire, install a new BOP and shut in the well, essentially the same technique that succeeded on the DWH, except on dry land rather than at a depth of 5000 feet. Why the government would become so wedded to the relief wells in the face of the Kuwait experience is something the Secretary of Energy ought to be asked under oath. There was a strong tendency to suggest that the well was flowing upward through the annulus past the production casing hanger, a theory eventually discredited by the photographs taken of the lockdown sleeve and later by the intersection of the relief well with the annulus. Why did they believe this well was flowing through the annulus when Occam’s Razor would suggest the problem was the failure of the shoe cement, the most common type of failure? The administration seems to be hiding the inconvenient facts, whether they are the state of the shear ram in the BOP (closed) or the density of the cement fragments. Over the past nine months, the government has failed to even provide photographs of those cement fragments recovered on April 20th. They seem to be taking foot dragging to a high art. The whole issue of whether the additional number centralizers recommended by Halliburton was relevant has been left open as a conclusion, if not as a subtitle to Chapter 4, “But who cares, its done, end of story [we] will probably be fine and we’ll get a good cement job.” Since the flow did not go up the annulus, the number of extra centralizers is indeed moot. The OSC staff implies that BP was uncaring in choosing to omit the extra centralizers when they fail to draw the obvious conclusion that the omission did not make a significant difference. They are spinning to shift blame onto BP while evading the government’s own responsibilities. The Bly Report was more self-critical than this OSC report is.

The lesson to be taken from all this is that decades of nanny state group think and political correctness have eviscerated the government’s ability to make timely, effective engineering decisions. It wasn’t always so. There was a time when those conservative virtues of self-reliance and personal responsibility allowed public-private collaborations to accomplish great things.

Probably the greatest shock to the body politic of the Twentieth Century was the Day of Infamy. No one had pre-planned the destruction of much of the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Yet within nine months thereafter, the U S Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage working with private companies such as Pacific Bridge and Merritt-Chapman and Scott had put out the fires and rescued the surviving crewmen, patched the damage to the battleships Pennsylvania, Maryland & Tennessee, the cruisers Honolulu, Helena & Raleigh, the destroyer Helm, the seaplane tender Curtiss and the repair ship Vestal and sent them on their way to the West Coast for permanent repair. They cut off the damaged bow of the destroyer Shaw, installed a false one and sent her to Mare Island. They refloated the Floating Drydock Number Two. They patched and pumped the battleship Nevada, and raised both the sunken battleships California and West Virginia and had them in drydock by August 6, 1942. All that in nine months!

We could do great things, we don’t need more laws and regulations as much as we need the men to effectively implement what we already have. The outline can be found in the Introduction to the U. S. Navy’s Salvage Engineer’s Handbook. How is this for a job description?

The salvage officer . . . must know sufficient naval architecture to be
thoroughly conversant with the subjects of ship stability, buoyancy, and trim.
He must know something of the strength of ships so that he can estimate the
stress that can be placed on a ship’s structure with safety. He should be an
engineer conversant with the laws of mechanics, of the strength of materials and
of gases, especially those pertaining to compressed air. He must know about the
nature of soils and rocks upon which a vessel may strand and he must be most
thoroughly versed in the principles of salvage. He must know something of the
valuation of ships and of their cargoes, for, in addition to salvaging ships, he
will have to decide whether or not a ship offers sufficient salved value to
warrant the expense and risk involved in its salvage. The salvage officer must
be a man of experience and decision. He will have no time when he arrives at the
scene of a wreck to make long surveys and to consider a plan of action. He will
have to decide upon this very quickly and he is not apt to hold his position
long if he makes many mistakes.

What is his legal authority to act?

Public Law 513 (10 U.S.C. §§ 7361 et seq) authorizes the Secretary of the Navy
to provide "by contract or otherwise, necessary salvage facilities for public
and private vessels upon such terms as he determines to be in the best interest
of the United States." As unnecessary government competition with the salvage
industry would not be in the best long-terminterest of the country, peacetime
salvage services provided by the Navy and other military services are
limited to salvage of government owned assets. Salvage services may
be provided to nongovernment assets if commercial salvors cannot or will not
provide the required services. Salvage operations conducted by military forces
and assets during peacetime generally
fall into one of the following
· Salvage of publicly owned vessels and clearance of Federally
controlled harbors.
· Salvage assistance to allied navies/governments.
Clearance of critical waterways at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard or U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers.
· Salvage or removal of vessels presenting a severe
pollution hazard, when no commercial assets are available, and when requested by
the U.S. Coast Guard.
· Salvage of vessels that present a unique training
opportunity, as determined by the Supervisor of Salvage.
· Recovery of
aircraft components to support mishap investigations as required by military and
civil agencies.
· Recovery of valuable or sensitive objects belonging to
government agencies.
· Support of oceanographic research.
· Assistance to
state and municipal governments.
· Salvage of commercial vessels when no
adequate commercial assets are available and the government is contracted by the
vessels’ owners.

More Big Government is not the answer, a public-private alliance of big men with confidence, experience and knowledge is.

BTW - I originated the “raising the plume” concept mentioned above, which cut the time needed to snuff out an oil well fire down to only 33 seconds, as can be seen in this video between 5:30 and 6:03.