Until this week, the general impression of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf has been that the explosion took everyone by surprise, and that neither BP nor a dysfunctional MMS had any idea that the well had reached a critical stage. Two days ago, however, Bloomberg reported that both BP and MMS were well aware of the high risk of a blowout at that particular well. BP and its subcontractor Transocean had in fact been fighting against a blowout for over two months, and MMS was well aware of the situation:
BP Plc was struggling to seal cracks in its Macondo well as far back as February, more than two months before an explosion killed 11 and spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
It took 10 days to plug the first cracks, according to reports BP filed with the Minerals Management Service that were later delivered to congressional investigators. Cracks in the surrounding rock continued to complicate the drilling operation during the ensuing weeks. Left unsealed, they can allow explosive natural gas to rush up the shaft. …
On Feb. 13, BP told the minerals service it was trying to seal cracks in the well about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast, drilling documents obtained by Bloomberg show. Investigators are still trying to determine whether the fissures played a role in the disaster. …
BP used three different substances to plug the holes before succeeding, the documents show.
“Most of the time you do a squeeze and then let it dry and you’re done,” said John Wang, an assistant professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering at Penn State in University Park, Pennsylvania. “It dries within a few hours.”
Repeated squeeze attempts are unusual and may indicate rig workers are using the wrong kind of cement, Wang said.
By March, according to these documents, the natural gas surges had gotten so bad that BP warned MMS that it had difficulty controlling them. On March 10th, BP e-mailed the MMS drilling director for New Orleans that they were in the midst of a “well control situation,” a result which led a Berkeley engineer to tell Bloomberg that “they [BP] damn near blew up the rig.” That was just a day under six weeks before the rig actually blew up in the Gulf.
This revelation shows that the disaster was far from unforeseen. In fact, it appears that it had already come close to a catastrophic blowout just six weeks before eleven people died in the subsequent explosion. BP didn’t exactly keep it a secret, either. They informed MMS of the problem, which apparently did nothing to intervene in a situation serious enough that a similar situation caused Exxon to shut down its well in 2006.
This may not change anything in terms of addressing the disaster in the short run, but it’s certainly good context to keep in mind when assessing the long-term consequences of this catastrophe and the potential solutions to prevent a repeat of it.