Friday, March 04, 2011

Cross Examining Fred Bartlit of the Oil Spill Commission

The Chief Counsel for the President’s Oil Spill Commission (OSC) Fred Bartlit Jr. released his Chief Counsel’s Report 2011 without the usual fanfare and definitely without questions from the press or the American people. At some point the Congress needs to have him testify regarding both the Commission’s Report and his own report. Both ought to be given a thorough examination, but having read them I can give the Congress a sort of Cliff’s Notes on how to conduct the cross examination.

Flow Path

Mr Bartlit has now definitively come down on the side of the flow path being up through the shoe track and production casing, though in Chapter 4.1 he describes three possible alternatives. He is now in agreement with the scenario presented in a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal by Mr. Terry Barr, Managing Director of Samson Oil, on June 11, 2010. (The WSJ editorially criticized Mr. Bartlit on his failure to catch up with Mr. Barr’s observations on Jan 13, 2011). So when it comes time to grade all of the various players, we now know the identity of the A+ star of the tale, Mr. Barr was the “curve buster”, against whom almost everyone else looks pathetic. Of course, he has extensive experience in the oil business. But he is a geologist, not a drilling engineer, so like most of the others in our little story, he just plays one in the media.

Understanding the real, versus the imagined, flow path is critical to understanding why it took so long to control the well. Loyal AT readers have seen much of this before, but all of you will find it easier if you print the well schematic taken from the Secretary of Energy’s website and published in AT on July 19, 2010, four days after the day the OSC noted, the flow of oil into the Gulf had stopped “almost unnoticed” by the National Incident Command. The area of interest is the lower left corner of the drawing. You can see that the 9-7/8” Liner extends down to 17’168’ Measured Depth (MD) which is also 17,157’ Total Vertical Depth (TVD) as the hole is not perfectly straight or vertical. You will see a gray shaded area on the outside of the liner which represents the cement pumped into the annular space between the liner and the rock face of the well bore. The cement extends upward to the Top of Cement (TOC) at 15,934’ MD. Below that, you will see the 7” diameter “shoe” of the production casing extends downward to 18,303.92’ MD and the bottom of the drilled hole extends beyond that down to a total depth of 18,360’ MD. That space between the end of the shoe and the bottom of the drilled hole is open directly to the rock and is called the “rat trap”.

You will see shaded gray cement both inside the production casing between the float collar at 18,114.93” MD and the end of the “shoe track” at 18,303.92’, and in the annular space between the production casing and the TOC at 17,3000’ MD. The M56 pay zone has been measured two ways. It is shown as between 18,083’ and 18,206’ as measured by Drill Pipe (DP - like the other measurements were) and between 18,066’ and 18,1890’ MD Wire Line Measured (WLM), a secondary measuring technique. We can ignore the wire line measurement for this discussion. The final piece of information is the Pore Pressure of 12.6 Pounds Per Gallon (PPG) which at a depth of 18,066’ equates to a formation pressure of 11,837 pounds per square inch (PSI). You can convert from depth and mud weight by a simple formula, depth times mud weight times a conversion factor of 0.052 yields the pressure (18,066 x 12.6 x 0.052 = 11,837).

So the two prime alternatives for the flow path were the annular path, directly up from the top of the pay zone at 18,066’ through 766’ of presumably channeled cement to the TOC at 17,300’ and then freely through the open annulus to the Blowout Preventer (BOP); or Mr. Bartlit’s actual path, downward through 98’ of cement in the annulus from the bottom of the pay zone at 18,206’ to the end of the shoe at 18,303.92’, then U-Tubing up inside the shoe track through another 189’ feet of cement in the shoe track to the float collar at 18,114.93’, and then freely upward through the production casing to the BOP. According to Mr. Bartlit, other than Mr. Barr (whom he did not cite) the universal prevailing opinion among all the actors (BP & its well control contractors, the Coast Guard and the Science Advisory Team et al.) was that the annular flow path was the most likely option. In other words, everyone was wrong! Perhaps that’s the reason he did not hold a press conference.

So how do we assign grades to the rest of those actors? I would suggest that we rank them by the date at which they came to the realization that the cause of the blowout was the failure of the primary cement job and the flow of oil along the path through the shoe track. By that measure, BP gets a “B”, Thad Allen gets a “C”, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist Steven Chu gets a “D” and the Chairwoman of the Flow Rate Group, Marcia McNutt, is the DUNCE. Please note that the cement contractor, Halliburton, still has not accepted Mr. Bartlit’s flow path, but as a potential criminal defendant, it has not yet fully presented its defense and is therefore scored “Incomplete”.

An impartial observer would note that a failure of the primary cement job (provided in both cases by Halliburton) was not only the cause of the largest oil spill in American history, but it was also the cause of the largest oil spill in Australian history, the Montara well. Perhaps the oil industry ought to take the possibility of a [primary cement job failure much, much more seriously.


Mr. Bartlit acknowledeges that government investigators have cement fragments in their possession recovered from the deck of the workboat Damon Bankston which was covered in drilling mud while alongside the Deepwater Horizon, before it was ordered away by the DHW dues to the well control event taking place. So the fragments are almost certainly from the failed primary cement job and sit, unexamined in some evidence room.

Blowout Preventer

We all know that the BOP sat outside at NASA’s New Orleans facility rusting and unexamined for two months, before it was subjected to a forensic examination. The report on that exam is already a month overdue, even after allowing for that two month delay in starting the exam.

Total Size of the Spill

As noted above, the government’s estimate on the size of the spill is based on the work of the Flow Group, chaired by The Dunce! Please note that National Incident Commander Thad Allen confirmed to David Hammer of the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the YouTube videos previously posted on AT are real.

BP says the government's flawed assumptions "very likely led to fundamental, pervasive and cascading errors" in its official calculations. The company's report notes that video of the inside of the blowout preventer stack shows major erosion of closures and holes in the metal walls, suggesting that highly pressurized oil and gas forced its way out in greater volumes as time went on.
When The Times-Picayune asked the Justice Department, the Interior Department and Det Norske Veritas -- the government contractor performing forensic analysis of the blowout preventer -- to confirm the authenticity of videos showing those phenomena, they declined to answer. But experts consulted by the newspaper said the videos, which include outside views from the deck of the vessel where the blowout preventer was raised as evidence, looked authentic. When a reporter showed one of the videos to retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the man who ran the government's spill response, he said the images were consistent with other videos of the inside of the blowout preventer that he viewed when it was still at the bottom of the sea.

It ought to make for a very lively hearing!