Friday, June 25, 2010

BURN: Exploring The Popular Myths About BP's "Culpable Conduct"

There are a LOT of myths about BP's "culpable conduct" abroad in the land.  Without the least intent to exonerate BP, it is always wise to deal with reality.

Let's start with a few predicates:
  1. Culpable conduct (recklessness, gross negligence, or even simple negligence) is NOT a mistake in judgment.  From a legal stand-point, even to get to simple negligence in a technical field means violation of a "standard of care" that is a known quantity in that field.
  2. Most of the people writing...especially in the MSM...about the Deepwater Horizon incident know nothing about the technology of drilling for oil.
  3. Many of the people who are making comments on this matter are not "disinterested" by any stretch.
  4. Virtually nobody...except people who are not commenting...knows what happened when the well blew out.
  5. Drilling for oil presents risks; it is not a "absolutely safe" proposition...EVER.
On Thursday, June 24th, no less a conservative pundit than Allahpundit, writing on Hot Air, had this to say--
As for the liability cap, I don’t get Napolitano’s point. Yes, in theory it creates a moral hazard by limiting BP’s losses to $75 million, but in practice the cap doesn’t apply in cases involving gross negligence, willful misconduct, or violations of federal safety regs. No surprise, then, that BP has said it’ll waive the cap and pay all legitimate claims: In essence, by taking so many risks with the rig, they waived the cap long ago and accepted the prospect of catastrophic losses.
As a commenter on that thread, I challenged Allahpundit to support the various assumptions in that statement.  He did not respond directly with any of the support I requested.

I assert that we...the American people...know very little about the actual events, or the conduct of BP and its vendors who were part of the drilling operation on the Gulf.

There are several things that seem well established, however--
  1. Since not later than sometime in February, this well was a beast...a well that showed every sign of going out of control.
  2. The regulators were well aware of this.
  3. There is essentially NOTHING that BP could do operationally that did not require approval of at least one Federal regulatory agency.
  4. BP was in the process of plugging and abandoning (P&A) this well in an effort to do the only thing possible when a well presents the kind of potential for catastrophic loss of control that this one did.
  5. EVERYONE involved on the operational end of EVERYTHING in the Gulf was dealing with many millions of dollars of equipment, and many of them were "going to be the first to know" if what they did was the wrong thing.  They had their careers and their lives on the line.

Lets look at some of the myths:

Myth One: "Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense. If this is what happened, BP's carelessness and complacency have inflicted a heavy toll on the Gulf, its inhabitants, and the workers on the rig," said Democratic Reps. Henry A. Waxman and Bart Stupak.

Easy for two Washington demagogues to say.  They have no idea what they're talking about.  But notice the term "it appears", and the term "time or expense".  Even they were leaving themselves an out.  Time in a wild well situation is a precious commodity, and it is grossly unfair to link it to "expense".  It is rational to assume that nobody on that rig was worried about expense.  They were worried about getting off that hole...alive, and with the vessel on which they worked intact.  Time was one thing they knew they might not have. 

There is a specific vignette about a recommendation from Halliburton that BP use twenty-one centralizers...devices that attach to casing as it is run into the well-bore to keep it evenly spaced relative to the bore, allowing cement to flow uniformly around it..., which was over-ridden by someone at BP; "It will take 10 hours to install them. I do not like this."  Centralizers are very inexpensive, as oil drilling components go.  Was BP trying to save a few hundred dollars, or time in deciding to use fewer than Halliburton suggested?  To me, the answer is obvious.  Time.  That is a judgment call, not recklessness, or even negligence.  Indeed, it may have been the absolutely responsible thing to do.

Myth Two: BP broke regulations.  The only support for that (of which I know) comes from the admitted failure by BP to certify the BOP (blow-out preventer) on this well for the MMS.  But it is also established that this was SOP, and MMS approved the drilling plan subsequently, as apparently was their practice. 

Myth Three: The BOP failed.  We simply don't know what happened, but from experience I can tell you this; a fully functional BOP takes time to work.  Sometimes, that is time that a drilling crew simply is denied by the forces in play.  One thing I can tell about the people writing about a "BOP failure" is they don't have a clue what they're talking about.  A BOP is a wonderfully reliable, proven, and redundant technology...that is NOT fail-safe.  Most people writing about BOPs (like they are authorities) tell us they shear off the pipe with powerful rams.  That is about a quarter true...maybe less.  There are three sets of a common BOP; pipe rams, designed to close around whatever size pipe is in the well; blind rams, which simply shutter off the well; and "shears" which are the ones people write about, and which are used as a last resort because of the damage they do.  Additionally, on virtually any BOP I've worked around, there is an "annular" section, designed to squeeze around whatever pipe is in the well, something like an inner-tube inflating against a fixed outside wall would squeeze whatever was inside its inner circumference.

Something else I've been wondering: are there conditions in which fully closing in a well may be the wrong thing to do?  This is outside my kin, but I can imagine that such a decision might be called for if there was a fear that fully shutting in a ramping well might rupture the casing (tubular lining inside the well that is NOT pipe, but which writers call "pipe" commonly), or blow out partially cured cement.  There are suggestions about the behavior of this well that indicate the casing IS ruptured.

Myth Four: BP chose an inferior method ("long-string" versus a more expensive and TIME CONSUMING "tie-back") method for lining the well-bore.  Here is why that is BS; both methods are acceptable...and the industry and by its regulators.  It is VERY unlikely BP made this election without regulatory approval.  And, again, the decision may have been made to save TIME, rather than out of any financial consideration.  These are facts that await revelation.  But to say one was "inferior" is simply stupid; the method chosen may, in fact, have had advantages over the other method.  Also, it is something like saying after a terrible accident, "He should have been driving the Mercedes, instead of the inferior Chevy".  Both are fine under any normal condition.  The observation is hindsight of the meanest species.

Those are just a few myths.  But let me leave you with some real-time statements that I think illustrate how seriously the people involved were treating this beast of a well: 
In an e-mail, BP engineer Brian Morel told a fellow employee that the company is likely to make last-minute changes in the well.
"We could be running it [I assume casing]  in 2-3 days, so need a relative quick response. Sorry for the late notice, this has been nightmare well which has everyone all over the place," Morel wrote.
The e-mail chain culminated with the following message by another worker: "This has been a crazy well for sure."
 Those are not the words of the normally calm, collected, and relatively fearless people who drill off-shore.  They are the words of people who face an unusual threat, and are trying to make it safe.


  1. Thanks for the mythbusting.

    I have very little sympathy for BP as their CEO Tony Hayward is an envirostatist. Any sympathy for BP should be directed toward the independent businesspeople who own BP gas stations.

  2. Well, they also employ a lot of really fine people in the oil & gas world.

    I've hated their posturing for years. "Green" companies would never get my investment money. Especially since they squander so much of it on buying governmental favors...

  3. Thank you for the clarity.
    A typo: for, "outside my kin"
    (should be: "ken" ...)

  4. Edward, THANKS! Spelling is not my forte.

    Glad you liked the piece, and hope you come by often. Tell your friends and neighbors if you find it worthwhile!

  5. Thankfully not all Americans are keen to jump onto the band wagon of hate, yet from the U.K. it seems a powerful culture of blame certainly runs through this society at the present day.
    When and where did this first develop?