BP’s three-front oil spill war — on the seafloor, on the Gulf Coast and in Congress — turned into a four-front battle Friday when its main partner in the damaged exploration well blamed the oil giant’s “reckless decisions and actions” for causing a disaster that was “preventable.”
It was the first time since the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that Anadarko Petroleum had given its view of the accident, and its chief executive, Jim Hackett, did not mince words. In a statement, Hackett said he was “shocked” by information that has emerged from investigations of the accident. He said it “indicates BP operated unsafely and failed to monitor and react to several critical warning signs during the drilling of the Macondo well.”
Anadarko’s statement contrasted with the testimony of BP’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, who told a congressional committee Thursday that it was too soon to reach conclusions about the disaster’s causes.
Hackett’s comments have huge financial implications. As a 25 percent partner in the well, Anadarko would ordinarily be responsible for a quarter of all cleanup and damage costs. But, Hackett said, “BP’s behavior and actions likely represent gross negligence or willful misconduct and thus affect the obligations of the parties under the operating agreement.” He said Anadarko would donate to charity and civic groups any proceeds it receives from the sale of oil collected during the cleanup.
BP said it “strongly disagrees” with Hackett’s allegations, but Hayward said in a statement that they “will neither distract the company’s focus on stopping the leak nor alter our commitment to restore” the Gulf Coast. BP’s chief executive added that “other parties besides BP may be responsible for costs and liabilities arising from the oil spill, and we expect those parties to live up to their obligations.” But regardless of how liabilities are allocated, he said, BP would still “pay all legitimate claims.”
For the BP bosses in the tailored suits, it was a bitter end to a grueling, embarrassing week, one in which they were scolded and hectored from the White House to the Capitol and wound up with a $20 billion bill for the oil spill. And it overshadowed indications that, far from the spotlight, BP engineers had had a pretty good week by the standards of this relentlessly grim calamity.
They made significant progress on the gulf surface, at the sea bottom and in the rock below the gulf floor. They can now imagine, and discuss with some plausibility, an end to the gushing-geyser phase of the crisis.
Although oil and gas continue to escape the well and pollute the gulf, more of it is being captured than just a few days ago. Engineers have put in place a new oil-containment system, a supplement to the existing cap on the severed pipe. On Friday, BP announced that during the previous day, the two methods captured 25,290 barrels (1.06 million gallons) of oil. That’s a 10,000-barrel jump from the containment rate of earlier in the week.
Simultaneously, the first of two relief wells has advanced nearly 11,000 feet below the floor of the gulf and is homing in on the well that has been out of control since the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon. That effort, officials said, is ahead of schedule.
“Until we collect every drop of oil, we won’t be satisfied, but within that context, the teams have made very good progress,” BP engineer Kent Wells said Friday.
The public may need more persuasion. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released Friday showed that 48 percent of respondents think that the situation is getting worse and 14 percent think it is getting better. Half believe that the gulf will never fully recover, and 53 percent favor criminal charges against BP employees and executives.
Hayward, the most controversial figure in the BP leadership, will no longer be in charge of the company’s gulf response, board chairman of Carl-Henric Svanberg said in an interview with Sky TV on Friday. That move had been announced two weeks ago in a conference call with investors. But Svanberg’s comment received widespread publicity and may signal a diminished public role for Hayward, who did not help his image with his reticent, talking-point-laden testimony Thursday during marathon House hearings. Managing Director Bob Dudley will take over BP’s daily operations in the gulf, Svanberg said.
New cap prepared
On the technical side of things, no one is sounding overconfident about a situation that is literally combustible.
There are upward of 25 ships and rigs packed into the Deepwater Horizon disaster site at the gulf’s surface, with two vessels actively flaring both oil and gas. This week, the company had to shut down containment operations for five hours after lightning hit the derrick on the drillship Discoverer Enterprise and caused a fire.
Meanwhile, a major decision looms at the end of this month. BP engineers have prepared a new, tighter-fitting cap, referred to as a sealing valve, that could be jammed on the leaking pipe as a replacement for the existing loose-fitting cap. But that means switching caps in mile-deep water, with oil and gas spewing during the changeover. Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen said Friday that no final decision has been made on whether to go forward on it.
“There will be an element of vulnerability there while we bolt a new system on board that will allow us to basically achieve what we hope will be a 90-percent containment,” Allen said.
Cautioned Wells: “This isn’t something where you just snap the cap off and put the valve on. It’s not that simple.”
The scene at the gulf surface and at the seafloor has steadily grown more elaborate. Currently, about 15,000 barrels (630,000 gallons) of oil a day are being siphoned via the cap to the drillship Discoverer Enterprise. The gas is burned, and the oil is eventually off-loaded to a tanker. Separately, oil and gas are now flowing out of the blowout preventer through lines that were originally used in the ill-fated “top kill” maneuver last month. Instead of drilling mud going down into the well, the oil and gas will go up to the surface rig, the Q4000. That oil isn’t going anywhere near a refinery — both the oil and the gas are being flared at the rig.
More hardware coming
There is more hardware coming. Engineers are assembling two riser pipes that can carry oil and gas from the blowout preventer to two drillships now churning toward the gulf. BP says it will be able to handle up to 80,000 barrels (3.36 million gallons) a day capacity by mid-July.
It is still unclear how much oil is coming from the well. The most recent estimate from federal officials is that the daily flow is 35,000 to 60,000 barrels (1.47 million to 2.52 million gallons).
One wild card is the condition of the well itself. Its casing could have been damaged in the blowout or in top-kill effort. Officials have said that they suspended the top kill to avoid opening multiple vents from the hydrocarbon reservoirs below. But Allen said this week that there is no sign of additional leaks.
The ultimate solution is a relief well, which plugs the blown-out well at its base, just above the reservoir and far below the seafloor. There are two relief wells being drilled. Only one is necessary for killing the leaking well; the other is a backup.
Wells said the first relief well is now within 200 feet of the Deepwater Horizon well, but it’s approaching at an angle from above, and so the drillers will penetrate an additional 1,200 to 1,500 feet of rock before making the final, delicate approach to the narrow wellbore.
That will be slow going, Wells said, sticking with the company’s early-August prediction for when the job will be finished.
The relief well has to penetrate steel casing that is about seven inches across. First will come a massive dose of 14.2-pound-per-gallon drilling mud that will fill the well from top to bottom. Then the engineers will send in the cement to plug the well, and — barring some other, unforeseen disaster — the black geyser that has been omnipresent on TV and the Internet will be seen no more.