Straw poll: cause of the leak

I haven't been paying a great deal of attention to the actual *cause* of the oil leak, in the sense of whose *fault* it is (I mean, in the physical sense rather than any stupid legal sense). [[Deepwater Horizon oil spill#Investigations]] has some stuff. In fact I'll quote it, so we have a sort of agreed position to start from, if only to disagree with:

Attention has focused on the cementing procedure and the blowout preventer, which failed to fully engage.[216] A number of significant problems have been identified with the blowout preventer: There was a leak in the hydraulic system that provides power to the shear rams. The underwater control panel had been disconnected from the bore ram, and instead connected to a test hydraulic ram. The blowout preventer schematic drawings, provided by Transocean to BP, do not correspond to the structure that is on the ocean bottom. The shear rams are not designed to function on the joints where the drill pipes are screwed together or on tools that are passed through the blowout preventer during well construction. The explosion may have severed the communication line between the rig and the sub-surface blowout preventer control unit such that the blowout preventer would have never received the instruction to engage. Before the backup dead man's switch could engage, communications, power and hydraulic lines must all be severed, but it is possible hydraulic lines were intact after the explosion. Of the two control pods for the deadman switch, the one that has been inspected so far had a dead battery.[217]

Just hours before the explosion, a BP representative overruled Transocean employees and insisted on displacing protective drilling mud with seawater.[218] One of the BP representatives on the board responsible for making the final decision, Robert Kaluza, refused to testify on the Fifth Amendment grounds that he might incriminate himself; Donald Vidrine, another BP representative, cited medical reasons for his inability to testify, as did James Mansfield, Transocean's assistant marine engineer on board.[219][220][221]

On June 1, 2010 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he has opened a criminal investigation of the BP oil spill. "There are a wide range of possible violations, and we will closely examine the actions of those involved in this spill," Holder said.[222]

So the poll is: I think that the fundamental cause of the oil leak is...

0. I don't think enough information is currently available to decide
1. BP's fault
2. 1, plus with gross and possibly criminal negligence
3. The fault of one of the subcontractors
4. 3, plus as for 2 "with gross negligence"
5. 3 (or 4) but plus "and since BP should have been closely supervising them, essentially the fault is BP's"
6. (just for symmetry with 5) one of 1-5, plus "and since the US govt should have been closely supervising them, essentially the fault is the US govt's"
7. Although this is a disaster, no-one is particularly at fault; these things just happen sometimes
8. 7, plus "and the risks are sufficiently high that we shouldn't drill in the gulf" (amplification: dec suggests in the comments that for "Chernobyl accident... the real human error was to choose a design which was known to be risky i.e to place water so near to graphite.")
9. ZOMG! This is so obviously BP's fault that even considering waiting to look for evidence is practically criminal conspiracy with Evil Oil Companies; burn them, they are witches.

At the moment, I'm with 0. But you can try to convince me otherwise. To point out the obvious: mere assertion that there is evidence will be unconvincing; you need links and quotes.

Incidentally, misc people have called this spill "unprecendented". That seems dubious (except in the traditional sense that 11 dead in Cumbria is headline news for days; 11 misc folks dead in road accidents are routinely ignored); it certainly isn't the largest, see [[Largest oil spills]] - it isn't even close.

[Update: nice link:]

More like this

I'm also going for 0, with a side order of "I don't actually understand enough about the engineering issues involved in ultra-deep-water oil exploration to say, no matter how much information is made available to me". I mean, seriously, that shit is technical. I guess that means I need to hand in my internet card or something...

However, I would have to admit that option 8 is also tempting.

I ranked the ones I see as reasonably plausible in order of the degree to which I think so. Doing such, I got 8-6-7-5-3-0-9.

If you examine any major accident, it is always found that there is a chain of dumb moves. Usually one can survive one bad mistake, but 2 or 3 in a row causes a blowup. From what I read, BP was giving completion bonuses for finishing under scheduled time, so was in essence betting 10 billion to gain a million. And, hoping to improvise around any booboo.

Seems to me clearly #2 plus #6 - the fundamental problem was BP rushing to close up shop to use the rig somewhere else (it was already several weeks delayed according to several reports I've seen). Removing the mud before the well was fully sealed up (and all the other failings documented) meant the one seal was all that stood in the way of a blowout - a single point of failure, which did indeed fail.

On the other hand, other countries require a relief well (in Canada it has to be put in the same "season"); the fact the US doesn't plus the obviously deficient review of BP's operations and contingency planning puts blame pretty squarely with the government - and MMS's failings here have been pretty clear for years.

There is also this Wikipedia link on the rig explosion. There is some text that is common, but also extra info

Minerals Management Service records show that since 2001, there have been 69 offshore deaths, 1,349 injuries and 858 fires and explosions in the Gulf of Mexico.[15] There were 39 fires or explosions on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico in the first five months of 2009, the last period with statistics available.[16][17]

and some, so far, unsupported testimony.

I'm still roughly in the 0 camp. But BP does have the overall responsibility, something I think their public face has acknowledged, since it is their well.

On the unprecedented thing: BBC Breakfast had an expert on about a week ago and he pooh-poohed the idea that the spill is unprecedented thus far (another 2 or 3 months leakage might change that). It wasn't on the scale of the Exxon Valdiz I think he said. It was also technically difficult to estimate the volume of oil gushing out of the well because we didn't know how much water and gas was also in the mix issuing from well. And there's plainly a volume of gas, because they are now flaring off from what they are managing to contain.

The pressure at that depth of about a ton per square inch. Obviously, the pressure on the oil from below is far greater than that. Has their equipment ever been tested in deep water? My money says no.

By Rose Colored Glasses (not verified) on 11 Jun 2010 #permalink

The BBC Breakfast expert is probably talking out of his rear end:…

If BP is _capturing_ 15,000 barrels per day, that's an Exxon Valdez every 17 days (and presumably BP could tell the difference between capturing oil and capturing gas): the government estimate of the total ongoing spill is almost twice that, so an Exxon every 9 days.

Like most disasters, I think we will find that the fault is shared between more than one entity (heck, even in the case of sabotage, where the vast majority of the fault is on the saboteur, there's often room for some question about whether there were adequate safety and backup procedures, depending on just how clever the saboteur was. Not to mention which, possible fault for inadequate or improper response in addition to fault for letting the initial event happen)

I don't claim to know who was responsible, but its very clear that there were a bunch of rather intentional decisions to skip safety measures, and that some of the people on the rig knew:…

[Yeees. But that is all sourced to "A prominent Houston attorney with a long record of winning settlements from oil companies" which is dodgy -W]

Other published statements have indicated that the BP official on the rig explicitly made a decision to skip parts of the standard process:…
Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the BP official decided to invoke the 5th, which means that he believes he may be prosecuted for having committed a crime.

I wouldn't set a lot of stall by my mention of Exxon Valdez. It might have been Amoco Cadiz, I realised afterwards; probably was in fact.

William, you may want to hold back on dismissive comments about the magnitude of the spill and whether it's "unprecedented." The spill is still going on and estimates of the flow rate continue to be revised upwards. If the estimates from Woods Hole quoted in that article turn out to be correct, it's already in 4th place, not far behind the 1979 Ixtoc spill.

There's certainly a good chance that this will ultimately exceed Ixtoc. If it does so, I think it's very reasonable to describe this spill as "unprecedented". The only two larger events on the Wikipedia list you cite are really quite different (one was a 1909 spill on land in Texas, the other was in the first Gulf War).

Not that long ago the media were describing this portentiously as "an oil spill that threatened to eclipse even the Exxon Valdez disaster". By today's estimates the Deepwater Horizon is actually spilling a Valdez's worth of oil every 5 to 13 days with no end in sight.

[I can't predict the future guv, give me a chance -W]

My brain's at 0, but my gut says the final answer will be 6.

If you take the high end of the wiki estimate (which, given today's upward revision of the estimated flow rate is probably significantly on the low side), this is one big spill. Maybe not unprecedented, but ultimately it won't stop spewing until sometime in August, which will probably end up slotting it in at #4, right behind Ixtoc. It certainly is unprecedented for US ocean spills.

BTW, this list places the current unpleasantness at 640,000 tonnes based on the high end 90,000 bbl/day estimate. The current govt estimate is 20,000 - 40,000 bbl/day and expected by the scientists doing the analysis to increase as more information comes in. So we can probably ballpark it at 320,000 tonnes so far and not be too far off. That slots it in at #4 and getting bigger every day.

As far as the poll answer: 6, even though at this point 0 is the logical answer.

By Rattus Norvegicus (not verified) on 11 Jun 2010 #permalink

For the technically inclined:


have some good descriptions of the present state of knowledge.
At this point it seems that regulatory capture occurred with the Minerals Management service, almost exactly as happened with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and that BP was negligent internally, as may be seen in bad casing design, inadequate cement job, bad procedure (failure to wait long enough to run pressure test, failure to perform and interpret pressure tests, failure to run cement bond log, inability to monitor mud return volumes) and bad maintenance on the last resort Blow Out Preventer. Admittedly Halliburton and Transocean may share some responsibility but BP as principal owner and operator of the lease will have to pick up most of the tab. Another important questions is: if the have screwed up here so badly, how many other BP facilities are disasters in waiting ? How many Blow Out Preventers are in badly maintained state ? How many other flaky cement jobs have they run ? How many more refineries will explode, and how many more oil spills will we see ?

There are things about this situation that indeed are unprecedented. One thing that clear is: modeling has predicted that the kind of oil plume formation seen in this blowout would happen with a deep blowout, but it's never been seen before. So that's unprecedented, and the effects on the gulf ecosystem will also be unprecedented (horrific or merely annoying? no one knows - the situation is unprecedented).

As far as the cause: 9 is premature, 7 isn't true, 8 I don't care for, 0 is true from a technical point of view (the BOP failure is currently a mystery), 1 is true from a process point of view - this was an "accident "in the sense that an airplane that stalls on takeoff goes down because the pilot failed to set the flaps because they skipped some steps in the pre-takeoff checklist that forces them to double-check (BP skipped steps that increased risk) is an "accident". 1 is true from a command point of view because, while the chain of command was apparently muddled on the platform, it was BP that made the decision to use a weaker form of concrete to seal the well and to replace heavy drilling mud with lighter seawater while trying to close shop. It was BP's operation. The buck stops there.

The BOP failure may be due to poor operating procedures (the possibility of a leak of hydraulic fluid that's been discussed, etc), insufficient design (unable to cut through drill pipe threaded joints), or simple mechanical failure. It's possible that the BOP failure is one thing that truly was an accident in the sense of "things break", too. No one knows. It's going to be analyzed in detail after being dragged to the surface after this is all over, that's certain.

But if the BOP had worked, BP would still be at fault for pushing the operation in such a way that safety was no longer the first consideration. They'd still have a "situation" on their hand, the well needing killing while everyone crossed their fingers hoping the BOP would hold until they got it done.

My understanding is that Brazil, along with Canada, requires the relief well be drilled along with the main well. This doesn't lead to #6 on your list, since lack of a relief well isn't what led to the blowout. But ... the damn thing would be killed by now if we had an equivalent requirement. And there appear to be a bunch of other regulatory weaknesses, which means we can lay blame on the government for not forcing the industry to follow best practices. On the other hand, free market types tell us such regs aren't necessary and competition will lead to companies doing so themselves, so I guess that makes it all BPs fault, eh? :)

If you want to add a counter to the "government supervision/regulation wasn't adequate", here's one floating around the libertarian and entrenched supporters of the oil industry:

It's the fault of american conservationists who have blocked drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, because if oil companies could drill wherever they wanted without consideration of impact on other natural resources such as wildlife and wilderness, they would not have started this well in the first place.

I don't see the option I'd like to pick.

#) I don't know enough about the details of offshore drilling to decide if any of the above statements are correct.

This is different than (0), as I admit that the evidence currently public might be enough to decide on fault, for someone well enough versed in offshore drilling to understand the details of what happened and why, and sift through the conflicting claims. I have worked in the oil business, but in refining, not production. I know just enough about it to know that I don't know enough about it.

I'm amazed at the number of drilling experts I'm running into.

Some things have become clear with time. BP's original statement was that there was less than 1,000 barrels of oil leaking per day.

Either they didn't know and should not have made such a statement, or they knew and were lying through their teeth. Take your pick.

The only statements I'll make a stand on are (7), (8) and (9). I claim these statements are false. Bad things do not "just happen". Bad engineering, bad manufacturing and/or bad operation make bad things happen. (9) seems mostly there for the snark value.

Phil Hays

By Phil Hays (not verified) on 11 Jun 2010 #permalink

10. Willfully ignorant petrol-consumers.

I believe that negligence on the US side is largely to blame. IMO, too much trust was put in the industry. The accident could probably have happened to any company. However, still BP has to pay. They reap the benefits, they should also take the associated financial risks. The less control from the state, the higher the price the industry should pay in the case of accidents. It is essential to send the message that it is really really expensive to fall short on safety measures.

So i say: 0-7-1 (but BP should pay no matter what).

None of the above (or perhaps 7).

"fault" is rather judgmental and actual, genuine, couldn't be avoided, accidents do happen.

OTOH clearly BPs responsibility - and they (mostly) seem to be on it.

A bit more, in particular a chronology of decisions to sacrifice on safety measures in favor of low-cost choices. The interesting bits start on page 2.

Actually putting this kind of information into context requires more background knowledge about standard practices in the oil industry than I have.

[There is some interesting stuff in there - thanks. Indeed, more than I can evaluate. I would say that the obvious thing lacking is what you have mentioned - context. Were BP's decisions unusual, or just what everyone did? For example, they talk about using 6 centralisers instead of the recommneded 21. Well, how many did the last 10 wells drilled used? I think you need that kind of context -W]

Looking around, its surprisingly hard to find the actual US federal government rules on centralizers (particularly from the Minerals Management Service, which is responsible for the rules on offshore oil wells more than 3 miles from land) but it looks like the standard is one centralizer for every 120 feet.

You can find a Bureau of Land Managment (responsible for regulating a large chunk of the on-land oil wells on US-government owned land) request to correct an oil well design to include a centralizer every 120 feet here. The relevant portion is at the very end:

The following Drilling Plan deficiencies must also be corrected. 8. Centralizers on every third joint (120â) of surface casing: 9. Centralizers on bottom three joints of intermediate casing: 10. Centralizers on every third joint (120â) of intermediate through cemented zone: 11. Centralizers on bottom three joints of production casing: 12. Centralizers on every third joint (120â) of production casing through cemented zone: 13. One centralizer on production casing above the intermediate casing shoe

Another good example of what the standard is is the New York State rules for the design of oil wells, which explicitly require one centralizer for every 120 feet:

Centralizers shall be spaced at least one per every one hundred-twenty feet; a minimum of two centralizers shall be run on surface casing. Cement baskets shall be installed appropriately above major lost circulation zones.

I haven't a clue whether the MMS was checking up on this stuff like they should be (and given their recent history of taking bribes and prostitutes from the oil industry, they might not have been) but its pretty clearly standard practice in the US for regulators other than the MMS to require one centralizer every 120 feet, plus additional ones near the surface.

New estimate is out: 35,000 to 60,000 a day. Looks like the ballpark just got bigger.

By Rattus Norvegicus (not verified) on 15 Jun 2010 #permalink

Just checked your link to the largest oil spills. They have it firmly at #4 and pursing Ixtoc for #3 and possibly surpassing it. It hasn't passed the Gulf War spill yet, but just give it a few days.

By Rattus Norvegicus (not verified) on 15 Jun 2010 #permalink

William, somehow I managed to not know unitl just now that one of the five members of the Russell committee is a BP exec who, as coincidence would have it, was in charge of their GoM deep water operations until April 2008.

It's a small world after all.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 15 Jun 2010 #permalink

I haven't a clue whether the MMS was checking up on this stuff like they should be (and given their recent history of taking bribes and prostitutes from the oil industry, they might not have been) but its pretty clearly standard practice in the US for regulators other than the MMS to require one centralizer every 120 feet, plus additional ones near the surface.

I don't know about this particular requirement, but in many areas federal regulations for offshore drilling are quite lax. One of the reasons the response has been so slow, for instance, is that federal requirements for planning, training, stocking of equipment, etc are quite pitiful. California and Alaska (post-Exxon Valdez) have much more stringent requirements, while Louisiana doesn't impose anything beyond the federal regs.

So much of the inflatable booms, etc have been coming in from California and Alaska, where oil companies are required to stockpile large quantities of gear in anticipation of a large spill (these two states are worried about tanker accidents, there's no offshore drilling in CA, for example).

We see a similar state of affairs with pit mines in the semi-arid US west. BLM requlations are somewhat lax (though much stricter than two or three decades ago). Nevada and Arizona don't have any laws that go beyond the federal regulations, and they're full of pit mines that have never been, and never will be, reclaimed etc. When a company (Atlas, I believe) wanted to open a cyanide heap-leach mine here in Oregon, voters passed a referendum to highly regulate such mines (there are all sorts of problems with ground water contamination, wildlife kills, etc with such mines) and they declined to build their mine.

I don't think Louisiana will do anything to rein in the oil companies there, though. The feds will, though. Whether it will be a serious effort or just cosmetic is hard to say. States like Florida (which does not participate in drilling, only in getting slimed by oil) will be watching very, very closely. But they're going to be watching a massive effort by oil industry lobbyists to derail anything that's significantly costly. Expect choruses of "we'll just drill more overseas, then, making the US even more dependent on foreign oil!" and the like.

So much of the inflatable booms, etc have been coming in from California and Alaska, where oil companies are required to stockpile large quantities of gear in anticipation of a large spill (these two states are worried about tanker accidents, there's no offshore drilling in CA, for example).

CA has no new wells going in, however there is plenty of production in near shore waters from Pt. Conception south. Unless I was imagining all those production platforms lit up like Christmas trees as night :-).

By Rattus Norvegicus (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink

Were BP's decisions unusual, or just what everyone did?

Frankly I don't care if you think none of your friends uses a condom, you're an adult and you have to take responsibility.

Since we don't have a conclusive investigation, and are interpreting reports that have trickled out from the media, I'm reserving final judgement. I guess it'll be a 4.
The reports of last minute changes to save money (even to have the well capped to report to a party so they'd have more to celebrate?) are a big red flag.

Four other oil companies threw BP under the bus yesterday when they said they do not drill the way BP did. Of course, they need to blame BP for gross negligence to prove they can drill safely.

The U.S. government's inspection agency MMS had been underfunded and badly managed for a long time. No new U.S. government gets everything fixed instantly; a new administration chooses its early priorities

The Obama administration did an amazing job in handling the economic problems and in restoring climate science and other science in the first few months. If MMS had been in the condition it was left in after 2 or 3 years, I'd be harsher in my judgement than at this point in time. Every appointment Obama makes must be approved by the Senate, which has been especially slow and sometimes even one Senator is permitted to hold up an appointment for unknown reasons. It takes time to get people in place. Now MMS (after the coal mine disaster and IG's report) is a priority and Obama just appointed a top guy to head MMS.

I think criminal negligence is likely to be proved. I don't know whose jurisdiction applies to an offshore facility. If a crime is proved, I want to see serious penalties. 11 men died.

By PurpleOzone (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink

CA has no new wells going in, however there is plenty of production in near shore waters from Pt. Conception south. Unless I was imagining all those production platforms lit up like Christmas trees as night

Well, yeah, I did say drilling :)

Looks like Boxer's going for a permanent ban for California ...

FYI: your link now has the Deepwater Horizon in the number 3 position, and the top end of the oil spill uncertainty range is actually larger than the number 1 spill.

I think perhaps it is worth correcting your statement: "it certainly isn't the largest, see [[Largest oil spills]] - it isn't even close."