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Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill On April 20, , a BP oil rig exploded off the Louisiana coast, unleashing millions of.
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The deeper you go, the greater the pressure. Imagine a giant bag of popcorn, fresh from a microwave oven, waiting to be opened. Now bury it under 5, feet of ocean and 13, feet of earth. Instead of ripping the bag open, you insert an 18,foot straw in the form of the pipe and then place your thumb over the top to keep the contents from exploding out. The air in the bag is the gas, the popcorn is the crude oil, and the thumb is the cement job temporarily sealing the hole.

Managing the pressure so that oil and gas can be brought to the surface in a controlled manner is called well control. A well-control event or incident—also known as a kick—occurs when there are problems with managing this pressure.

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A loss of well control is called a blowout. Because the distance between man and well is so far in the deepwater, the technology must be the link between those two.


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The technology on board the Horizon was far from perfect. Just one example of hundreds of unattended repair issues on the rig was described as the blue screen of death in testimony by Transocean chief electronics technician for the Horizon , Mike Williams. There are three drilling chairs: A and B in the drill shack and C in the assistant drill shack.

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The computer screens locked up—regularly on the A chair, and occasionally on the B chair, according to Williams. When a screen locked up, it would just turn to a blue screen, he testified.


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You would have no data coming through. While waiting for a replacement system, the Horizon crew members were limping along with what we had. In questioning, Williams was asked, Well, if the driller is sitting there trying to manage the well, and the blue screen of death shows up, how is the driller supposed to be able to manage the well?

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Although corporate executives are obsessed with oil, everything on a rig is focused on gas: how to keep the gas out while bringing the oil in. The Gulf of Mexico has many unique attributes, including being one of the most methane-rich production areas in the world, which also makes it one of the most dangerous places on earth to drill. Gas kicks are routine. Even blowouts occur far more often than the industry would have us believe, and with increasing frequency.

From to , twenty-eight blowouts occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, four of which took place in the eighteen months preceding the blowout of the Macondo well. Of the productive wells in the Gulf of Mexico, are in water depths of less than feet; only 37 wells are located at depths greater than 1, feet, but these wells account for nearly 70 percent of the oil produced in the Gulf. The U. The blowout preventer shuts in a well in the event of a serious kick, in order to prevent a kick from becoming a blowout.

On November 1, the Marianas was forced to unlatch from its blowout preventer in one of the singularly most costly events in the drilling of a well if it occurs, according to rig experts WEST Engineering Services. Such problems on a Transocean rig are not unique.

Black Tide

In fact, since , 73 percent of incidents that triggered federal investigations into safety and other problems on deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf have been on rigs operated by Transocean. This rate is out of proportion to the percentage of rigs the company operates in the Gulf: less than half.

The Deepwater Horizon arrived at the Macondo well on January 31, From the start, the well was kicking, and the crew lost control of it several times. In March, the drill pipe became so irrevocably stuck that it was left there while the crew moved on to try a new spot. The reason, explained Mike Williams, was pressure to get the job done fast. Going faster caused the bottom of the well to split open. We got stuck so bad we had to send tools down into the drill pipe and sever the pipe, Williams said.

And you always kind of knew that in the back of your mind when they start throwing these big numbers around that there was gonna be a push coming, you know? A push to pick up production and pick up the pace, Williams explained.

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Unfortunately, none of these events was unique to the Macondo well or the Deepwater Horizon. It was simply an unlucky cumulative impact that led this rig and not others to such catastrophic disaster. The enormity, extreme difficulty, and relative newness of deepwater drilling regularly puts production wells off schedule, which always means mammoth cost overruns. In response, companies cut corners. I spoke with many offshore oil workers for this book; all of them are currently employed, so few would speak on the record.

They all do it. Shell, Chevron, they all do it. They hit a comfort zone, get complacent, could do it a little cheaper, a little differently, and, yeah, eventually the worst happens. With seventeen years of experience in the oil industry, assistant driller Stephen Curtis knew a tough well when he worked one. The Macondo well is not unique. It is, rather, a tragedy of foreseeable errors left uncorrected that has set its place in history.

Women and the Gulf Oil Spill, One Year Later

Mike Williams worked both wells with Curtis. Floor hand Adam Weise was calling his girlfriend, Cindy Shelton, before and after every shift—unusual for him. He was frustrated with the problems on the project.

Everything that could go wrong was going wrong, she said. Shane Roshto shared the same worries. Just twenty-two years old, he tried to explain the dangers of offshore drilling to his twenty-one-year-old wife, Natalie. Baby, Shane told her, the earth is. Like many other members of the crew, Jason had been with the Horizon since its birth, bringing the rig to the United States from Korea, where it was built. Nonetheless, he was worried. Before he left, the father of two young children, ages five and one, gave his wife, Shelley, a will and a list of things that he wanted handled if something happened to him.

On April 14, BP drilling engineer Brian Morel e-mailed a colleague, saying, this has been [a] nightmare well which has everyone all over the place. In response, BP was cutting corners. BP changed its well design three times within one twenty-four-hour period. Each new design was approved by government regulators, sometimes within minutes of the request being submitted. The final design was one long tube running through the center of the well. The design was doable, according to Halliburton, the subcontractor hired to do the cement job to secure the pipe, as long as BP used twenty-one devices called centralizers to help hold the pipe in place while the cement set.

The Horizon had six such centralizers on board, so BP drilling operations engineer Brett Cocales ordered an additional fifteen out to the rig. In an e-mail that day, Guide argued that the new centralizers were not ideal for the job, and it will take ten hours to install them. On April 18, Halliburton ran a new computer model of a cement job using fewer than seven centralizers.

It showed that such a job entailed a severe risk of gas flow. Not only did Halliburton perform a substandard job, it also used the wrong cement. Halliburton used a nitrogen foam, common in offshore drilling generally, but not for deep high-temperature, high-pressure zones such as the Macondo well. Tensions were high, and disputes appear to have been taking place all over the rig.