Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Finding Facts or Fault

I devoted several hours yesterday to watching Senate hearings on the Gulf Coast oil spill. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee hosted two panels, one a technical panel featuring a former official of the Minerals Management Service--the agency that Interior Secretary Salazar has announced he intends to split in two--and a Professor of Petroleum Engineering from Texas A&M. The second, juicier panel was composed of senior executives from the three main companies involved in the spill, BP, Transocean and Halliburton. Despite the importance of these hearings in putting a face on this disaster and giving our elected representatives an opportunity to demonstrate their concern, I thought the panels served a useful educational purpose. And somewhat to my surprise, they also turned up at least one apparently new fact that might prove crucial in understanding what went wrong 5,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico on April 20th.

I can't claim to be a great connoisseur of Congressional hearings. They offer some of the same morbid fascination as a car wreck: you know you shouldn't be watching, but you can't take your eyes off it. True to form, a few of the Senators treated the session as an opportunity to show their outrage and alignment with their constituents' concerns. Most, however, followed the tone set by the Chairman, Senator Bingaman (D-NM), in asking thoughtful, probing questions--though I couldn't help chuckling when one Senator seemed to imply that she had participated in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger hearings in that same room--alluding to their famous "O-ring" revelation--even though she would have just been elected to her state's legislature that year. Despite the obvious frustration of the committee members when the three executives deflected their efforts to pin the blame for the accident on each of them in turn, the discussion remained civil and the comments and questions mostly substantive.

I found two lines of questioning especially intriguing. The first related to the cause of the accident itself--as distinct from the subsequent leak--and whether it might have had something to do with the well having been cleared of drilling mud prior to setting the final concrete plug in the well. As I understand it, drilling mud is used to balance the pressure in the well between the higher reservoir pressures deep underground and the much lower pressure at the surface. Once the heavy mud was removed and replaced with lighter seawater, the barriers installed in the well (steel casing, cement, the first plug, and ultimately the blowout preventer, or BOP) would have had to withstand the full pressure in the reservoir, which Dr. F.E. Beck from the first panel estimated at 14,000 psi. Since this was apparently the last action performed by the drilling crew prior to the explosion, the sequence and timing of this step makes it an obvious candidate for one of the root causes leading to the explosion on the topsides of the Deepwater Horizon rig. Senator Sessions (R-AL), in particular, tried in vain to get any of the three witnesses to concur that it was contrary to normal practice for the mud to be displaced prior to the setting of the final cap.

The other fascinating exchange occurred later in the hearing, at about 1:24 into C-SPAN's archive video, when the ranking member, Senator Murkowski (R-AK), questioned Transocean's CEO, Mr. Newman, about reports that Deepwater Horizon's BOP had been modified. According to Mr. Newman, one of the five "ram" preventers on the BOP stack was converted "from a conventional well-bore-sealing ram preventer to a BOP test-ram", to "allow for more efficient testing of the BOP." He went on to explain the economic benefits of such a modification, which apparently has been done on other rigs, in reducing the cost and delays associated with testing the BOP. Unfortunately, although Senator Murkowski followed up with a question about whether any modified BOPs had experienced incidents, she didn't ask whether that modification had reduced the capability of the BOP to respond to a catastrophic failure of well control.

Perhaps I've misunderstood Mr. Newman's remarks, and the modification would have had no impact at all on the operation of the BOP. Or it's possible that one extra ram might have made no difference at all, in conjunction with the cascade of other failures necessary to produce a blowout of this magnitude. However, this certainly seems like a topic that should be examined in much greater depth during the full incident investigation that must follow.

I didn't have time to catch the afternoon hearings, in which the same executives were grilled by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, or the House hearings this morning. I'll be interested to see if any other new insights emerge, though a couple of things seem clear. First, and with due respect to the Senators and their staffs who clearly worked hard to get up the steep learning curve on this subject, they are simply not equipped to conduct an engineering investigation into an accident of the technical complexity involved in deepwater drilling. Moreover, the format and adversarial approach aren't well-suited to eliciting the necessary level of candor and cooperation from witnesses who've essentially been told they are auditioning for the role of chief villain in the piece. If anything, that understandable tendency to prioritize blame-apportionment over impartial fact-finding seems to have been amplified by the financial crisis and recession. But while it's easy to write such hearings off as political theater, they can still serve a useful purpose, because that same lack of technical knowledge on the part of these committees constrains the dialog to a level that the average American actually has a chance of understanding. That makes it all the more essential that the Congress should refrain from leaping to premature conclusions that could turn out to be wrong, but very hard to correct later with the public.

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