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Technology Failures, Perils of Deepwater Drilling Among Gulf Oil Spill’s Lessons

April 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his new book, "A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea," Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach chronicles the 2010 struggle to stop what would become the nation's worst off-shore oil spill. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Achenbach about the battle to plug the BP Macondo well, the lessons learned and the future of deepwater drilling.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, a pair of stories about the Gulf Coast oil spill, one year later.

First, Hari Sreenivasan has a conversation about the battle to stop the damage last spring and summer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the days immediately following the deadly explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, both government officials and BP executives initially said the oil spill was a very small one. It turned out to be anything but.

More than 200 million gallons of oil leaked into the Gulf, as engineers raced to plug the well. The disaster also raised many questions about deepwater drilling for the future.

Joel Achenbach has reported extensively on all this for The Washington Post. He is the author of a new book chronicling this, “A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea.” He joins us now.

Welcome.

JOEL ACHENBACH, The Washington Post: Great to be here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.

So, let’s start a little bit about kind of from today’s perspective. There is still conversation and there is still progress towards more deepwater drilling and exploratory drilling in the Gulf, right?

JOEL ACHENBACH: The industry wants to get back to it. They want to get back into the deepwater. And it’s a very contentious issue, obviously.

The administration has given 10 permits for new deepwater exploratory wells. And deep water is over 1,000 feet. Ultra-deep water is anything over 5,000 feet. The Macondo well that was being drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig was right around 5,000 feet. So, it’s right on the border of ultra-deep water.

And the question is, is the industry ready to do this?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Is it safe to — what have we learned from the past year? Is it safe to drill in these high-temperature, high-pressure, very deepwater formations? The Gulf is a tricky place to drill, as anyone in the industry will tell you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, you said earlier on — in your book, actually, that even the Macondo well wasn’t situated particularly great. I mean, BP had big intentions for it but underground it wasn’t the best of all wells.

JOEL ACHENBACH: The industry will tell you that there are 40,000 offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico. But how many are in mile deepwater? The answer is a few hundred.

And, in fact, one of the engineers who worked on the oil spill commission made the point to me. He said, how many wells looked like this one that had all these features?

Every well is its own challenge, not just geologically. But, in the case of the Macondo well, they were trying to temporarily abandon it. And there were a lot of anomalies with this well, with the fact that they had — the formation was very crumbly down there. They kept losing mud down the well.

The drilling mud is a key tool for drilling and they were losing mud like crazy. And this — this — this well was primed for a disaster, we now know. The tragic thing is that, up and to the very moment of the blowout, it didn’t appear that the people on the rig realized how close they were to a disaster.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the book, you also chronicle this parallel arc of how the administration tried to get a handle on it, and whether they liked it or not, it was the White House’s problem. There was sort of the operational challenge and then there was the political one.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, after Katrina, you saw what happened with — you know, President Bush never recovered from the debacle of Katrina, because it was — it was bungled so badly by his administration.

And I think the Obama White House was very, very conscious of not wanting this to become Obama’s Katrina. And I was able to obtain an enormous trove of e-mails that showed what the administration was thinking throughout this crisis, what the scientists were — were doing, how they interacted with BP, how the scientists interacted with each other, you know, discussions about, Well, can we blow up the well?, that was going on.

Fully two months after the disaster began, they were still talking about…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even a nuclear option at one point.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, they weren’t talking about using nuclear.

(LAUGHTER)

JOEL ACHENBACH: It is true that there were nuclear scientists in the middle of the team. But they were thinking of conventional explosives to make the well collapse.

But, very quickly, that was shot down when the 82-year-old Richard Garwin, an adviser to Steve Chu, said no, I have got the notes of Enrico Fermi right here I can show you. Bad idea.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what was it like in that nerve center? There were so many different wars — rooms, so to speak. You were there. You kind of describe it in a way as almost like an Apollo 13 mission to try to stop this thing.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well this was a lot like Apollo 13.

In fact, when I set out to do the book, that was — that was the thought in my head. I’m going to do the Apollo 13 story, which is how do you — how do these engineers in Houston solve this very difficult technical problem?

Apollo 13 lasted about four days, when they brought the spacecraft back and saved those three astronauts. This didn’t end until day 87, when they finally sealed the well. And tracing their thought process, how they did it, I mean, BP made some mistakes. Also, it was more challenging than they thought it would be.

They believed that they had the tools in place to handle a deepwater blowout. But as they moved down the continental slope into the deep water they were entering a different world. And the rules were all different. The chemistry is different at that depth, the pressures, the temperatures.

And so, when they lowered the big containment dome it immediately filled up with methane hydrates, these ice-like crystals.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

JOEL ACHENBACH: When they tried the top kill, when they shot mud down the well, the — the well was way too powerful and just basically spit it all back out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, I guess, if you had to boil it down, what is the sort of key learning from the investigation board now? We have — we’re a year past. They have made some findings.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, you know, this kind of thing will happen again.

And, as I say at the end of the book, it might not be another blowout. It might be a different kind of technological disaster. And I mentioned a possible disaster at a nuclear power plant. I wrote that before the tragic event in Japan at Fukushima.

I think people need to understand we live in an engineered world, and that the technology, as marvelous as it is, there are these failures modes that lurk within it. So, anyone out there who is in charge of one of these complex technologies, either as a policy-maker or as an engineer, needs to say, OK, where is — where is the failure point in this whole thing? What’s the thing I’m not thinking of that’s lurking within it that makes the system less robust than I thought it was?

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. The book is called “A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea.”

Joel Achenbach from The Washington Post, thanks so much for joining us.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Thank you.