Oil + Water

Eleven dead. More than four months to plug the well completely. Five million barrels of oil polluting the ocean. Oil industry expert and geophysicist Roger N. Anderson talks to Columbia Magazine about the technical aspects of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Interview by Michael B. Shavelson Published Fall 2010
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Gulf of Mexico oil spill illustrationCOLUMBIA: In the 1990s, you were part of a group from Columbia and the Boeing Company that pushed the oil industry to improve the planning and management of deepwater drilling platforms. What was that effort?

ANDERSON: The project, called Northstar, tried to interest the oil companies in systems engineering practices, and particularly the need for systems integration to make deepwater exploration and production more safe, efficient, and effective. This was the “lean management” approach for life-cycle planning and operation of deepwater drilling platforms. Tony Hayward, who was vice president for exploration and production at BP, was a big supporter of our project. However, the additional systems required for lean management were deemed too expensive at the time, and the project was dropped. (See Anderson’s blog of July 20 at www.pennwellblogs.com/calm.)

COLUMBIA: Do different companies have different management strategies and operating philosophies?

ANDERSON: BP is infamous for pushing the envelope on safety. For example, on March 23, 2005, the company had a dreadful explosion in a Texas oil refinery that killed 15 people and injured more than 170. BP went through lawsuits, they were heavily fined, and the court ordered them to change safety practices and fix basic processes — and it turns out they didn’t. Just last month BP received a record $50.6 million fine from OSHA because they hadn’t corrected some things that they promised the court they would fix five years ago. All this is in addition to the original fines — and to the billions they will be paying for the damage caused by the Gulf disaster.

The BP chief at the time of the 2005 refinery explosion was Lord Browne. He rebranded the company “Beyond Petroleum” — as a green, clean-energy, and safe company. He had a reputation for paying his people bonuses for cost-cutting incentives. But companies have to be very diligent that incentives for cutting costs and increasing profits do not disrupt the culture of safety in any of their operations. Other companies, like Shell and Chevron, have not had the number and magnitude of safety incidents that BP has been troubled with for many years now.

COLUMBIA: How common are blowouts?

ANDERSON: They are more common on land: There were blowouts in Pennsylvania in June and July, for example. But they are rare in expensive offshore reservoirs. They usually happen with smaller oil and gas outfits.

COLUMBIA: What is the inspection like at these giant wells?

ANDERSON: I’ve been on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico for months at a time, and the MMS had inspectors there every week. They fly in on helicopters to do surprise inspections of the equipment above the water. The equipment below the water gets inspected between jobs. The BOP of the Deepwater Horizon, which was manufactured by Cameron, would definitely have been scheduled for repair right after the Macondo well was completed because of the hydraulic leaks. I’m sure it
was already booked into Cameron’s overhaul facilities as soon as it came off this well.

COLUMBIA: The protocols for drilling must include provisions for some kind of worst-case scenario.

ANDERSON: That is part of the problem. Humans are not very good at perceiving the worst thing that could happen — until it actually happens. And BP clearly hadn’t considered the possibility of a blowout of this magnitude. I’m sure they dismissed the 3.5-million-barrel Ixtoc blowout of 1979 in the Mexican side of the Gulf of Mexico as being something that could happen to Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned company, but not to BP.

COLUMBIA: During the spring and summer there were wide swings in the numbers being reported of the volume of oil gushing out of the well. Did BP really not know how much oil was leaking?

ANDERSON: Here at Columbia, at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, they knew, so BP certainly knew. We measure this kind of thing at Columbia all the time in what we call the black smokers on ocean ridges. With lasers, oceanographers can measure the velocity of flow very accurately.

COLUMBIA: How is that done?

ANDERSON: They measure the time in which a particle or a bubble moves over a known distance. In May, Timothy Crone and the people at Lamont came up with an estimate of at least 40,000 to 60,000 barrels per day by analyzing video they had captured right off the television. At the time, BP and the Coast Guard were saying 5000 barrels a day.

COLUMBIA: How many wells are in the Gulf of Mexico?

ANDERSON: Thousands of active wells and tens of thousands of abandoned wells. There has been offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico since 1947.

COLUMBIA: What is the chance of something like the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe happening again in the Gulf, especially as the drilling gets deeper and deeper?

ANDERSON: From the old wells, the odds are slim to none: They’re abandoned because they’re already depleted. That said, there are a few people like us at Columbia who have mapped what’s known as recharge: Every so often one of these old and depleted oil wells will come back to life because oil has migrated into a previously depleted reservoir from a deeper source. That’s why they don’t put permanent plugs in them. And of course, BP has also not ruled out returning to produce the Macondo oil reservoir some time in the future.

As far as new wells are concerned, there is production going on as we speak in far deeper waters than the 5000 feet of Macondo. Shell operates a production facility called Perdido in 10,000 feet of water 200 miles off the coast of Texas.

COLUMBIA: What about the explosion in the Gulf on September 2?

ANDERSON: This one was an oil production platform as opposed to a drilling rig like the Deepwater Horizon. It was bringing primarily natural gas to the surface, cleaning and separating water out and injecting it into two gas pipelines carrying the gas underwater to what is called Henry Hub in southern Louisiana for sale most likely to New York and the northeastern U.S. Since the platform had been producing for many years, the gas reservoir was nowhere near as pressurized as with the Deepwater Horizon blowout. In fact, it looks as if a fire actually started in the crew cabins and spread to the gas-collecting facilities, causing the explosion. The operator, Mariner Energy, has also had a checkered safety record in the Gulf of Mexico, including several previous fires on the same platform. It’s another example of the need for tighter oversight of offshore operations in the U.S.

Roger N. Anderson is an energy geophysicist and the Con Edison Senior Scholar at the Center for Computational Learning Systems at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science. At Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, he founded research groups that specialized in borehole research, global basin modeling, 4D oil and gas reservoir imaging, and portfolio management. Anderson also teaches Planet Earth in Columbia College’s Core Curriculum.


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