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DROWNING IN OIL
BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit
By LOREN C. STEFFY
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2011Loren Steffy
All rights reserved.
PIERCING THE FIRES OF HELL
Night settled across the Gulf of Mexico about 40 miles from the coast of Louisiana. A sliver of a moon rose above the shimmering water, reflecting off the translucent pillows of jellyfish that bobbed just below the surface. The calm water lapped gently against the giant gray steel pylons that kept the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig suspended above an oil well a mile below the surface.
The Horizon was a massive feat of engineering, a portable steel boomtown for 126 people. The rig had meandered from ocean to sea to gulf, from one oil hot spot to the next, chasing some of the largest deposits of crude and drilling some of the deepest wells of all time. Technically, she was a ship, with engines that could propel her at about four knots and eight under-water thrusters that kept her positioned over the wellhead when she was at rest. The platform was bigger than a football field, capped by a drilling derrick that towered 20 stories above the main deck. Her owner, Transocean Ltd., had spent a half-billion dollars building her, and she could float in as much as 10,000 feet of water and still drill some 30,000 feet below the earth's surface—deeper than Mount Everest is tall. She was part city and part drilling machine, and she was about to become a flaming tomb.
Maybe 130 other vessels in the world could do what the Horizon did. She was special. Built in a Korean shipyard in 2001, she was one of the most advanced weapons in man's insatiable quest for oil. In recent years, she had been working mostly in the Gulf for BP, the British oil company that was developing some of the deepest wells in these waters. She'd hit the Tiber field the previous fall, drilling the deepest well in history at more than 35,000 feet. She had also drilled wells in BP's other two Gulf showcase fields, Thunder Horse and Atlantis, and since February, she'd been positioned over the Macondo prospect.
The Macondo was near a geological formation known as the Mississippi Canyon, an underwater crevasse in the central Gulf about 4 miles wide and 75 miles long. Companies had been drilling in the canyon since 1979, but BP was pushing the technological boundaries, moving to ever-greater depths. The government had issued a permit in March 2009, and one of the Horizon's sister rigs had begun drilling in the fall. A late hurricane, though, had damaged the rig, so that it couldn't complete the job. The Horizon had moved in to finish the drilling. At the end of a mile-long pipe that had been fed down from the derrick, a drill bit that looked like three metal softballs made from the soles of cleated baseball shoes, grinding in unison, had punctured the seafloor and churned through the rock beneath. The bit had ground its way through almost two and a half miles of earth until it struck an ancient graveyard of dinosaurs that had long since decomposed into a massive underground pool of petroleum. It had been a rough ride. The Macondo was fussy, like an infant after mealtime, and the pressure and gas rose like burps from deep in the ground, kicking at the drill pipe and causing shudders that could be felt on the rig above. One BP employee, monitoring the drilling process from back on shore, had referred to the well as a "nightmare." Another described it as "crazy." For BP, it was worth it. Macondo had the promise of being a prolific reservoir of oil, the type of huge find that's referred to in the industry as an "elephant." It was exactly the sort of high-risk, high-reward prospect that BP liked, even if the well's crankiness had slowed the drilling process. Macondo and wells like it represent the best hope for finding new oil deposits in America. Unlike the harsh climates of the Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico is warm most of the year, and, aside from hurricanes, it is a relatively easy place to drill. That convenience and the discovery of finds like the Macondo were driving demand for more drilling. For decades, the offshore industry had coexisted with the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf, home to some of the world's most prolific seafood production, without major problems. The last significant spill had been in the late 1970s, when a well in Mexican waters blew out and tainted beaches in south Texas. Tens of thousands of wells had been drilled since then, with ever-improving and safer technology. The need for new oil deposits in friendly waters, combined with the industry's safety record, had eased public concern over offshore drilling. Less than two months after the Horizon arrived at the Macondo, President Barack Obama had opened vast new areas of the Gulf, parts of the eastern seaboard, and segments of offshore Alaska to new drilling. The deep water was about to get busier.
As night settled in on April 20, though, none of the crew was thinking about new neighbors barging in on the Horizon's solitude. A half-dozen BP and Transocean supervisors had arrived by helicopter earlier in the day to celebrate seven years of impeccable safety on the rig. BP was a company that knew the painful cost of ignoring safety. Just a month earlier, the company had marked a bleak anniversary—a refinery explosion five years earlier near Houston that had killed 15 workers and injured hundreds more. After that tragedy, and after the harsh findings of the investigations that followed, BP had enacted sweeping new safety procedures. A rig operating without an accident deserved special praise. By the time the helicopter ferrying the BP managers had landed, things were winding down on the drilling of the Macondo well. The Horizon crew had struck what appeared to be a sizable reservoir of oil, and it was now in the final stages of its task, preparing to cap the well and move the rig to another site. Once the Horizon was gone, BP would tie Macondo into a nearby underwater pipeline and begin pumping its oil toward shore. That, however, wasn't the Horizon crew members' concern. They just drilled the wells; they didn't stick around for "first oil." Both the Horizon crew and BP were ready to move on. The Macondo's crankiness had set them behind schedule by a month and a half, and nowhere was lost time more costly than on an offshore rig. BP was spending about a half-million dollars a day for the Horizon, and the delays had pushed the project more than $20 million over budget in rig costs alone.
* * *
Stephen Stone was no drilling expert, but even he could tell that things weren't going smoothly. Stone had joined the Horizon's crew more than two years earlier, working as a roustabout, which means that he did a variety of jobs and specialized in none. Stone, whose dark beard framed boyish features, mostly assisted crane operators and helped to pump a heavy fluid of clay and chemicals known as "drilling mud" into the well bore. Stone was coming to the end of his two-week stint aboard the Horizon. In another day or so, he'd be back on shore and in the arms of his redheaded bride, Sara, whom he had married just six months earlier.
During most of Stone's hitch, the drilling mud had been disappearing in the hole. That wasn't helping the Macondo's budget problems. Drilling mud may sound mundane, but it's a highly specialized mixture designed to lubricate the well and tamp down the pressure. The recipes for mud are carefully guarded by the service companies that make it. For wells like Macondo, BP would be paying about $10 million just for the mud. When a well loses mud, it can mean only a couple of things, and neither of them is good: either the underground formation is unstable, or the well was drilled too quickly, cracking the formation. At least four times during Stone's hitch, the crew had been forced to stop pumping in mud and shoot heavy drilling sealant into the h
Excerpted from DROWNING IN OIL by LOREN C. STEFFY. Copyright © 2011 by Loren Steffy. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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