Warnings of gas-leak risk at BP well described at Gulf of Mexico oil spill hearings


A federal investigation into what went wrong at BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil well before it blew shed more light on fateful decisions in the days before the April 20 explosions.

Jesse Gagliano, a Halliburton employee who worked on cementing BP’s Macondo well, testified Tuesday in Houston that he verbally warned BP officials that their well plan increased the risk of gas leaks and questioned those plans by e-mail. But he wasn’t able to get the company to change the process before the well kicked gas, sparking the deadly explosion and ultimately leading to the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

One of the people he talked with was the well’s designer, BP engineer Brian Morel. Morel signed off on BP’s controversial well plan and referred to it as a “nightmare well” in an internal e-mail days before the explosions. On Tuesday, he became the second witness to refuse to testify before the joint Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management panel, invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

On April 15, five days before the explosions, Gagliano ran a computer model for BP’s engineers that assumed BP would use 21 devices called centralizers to prevent the cement Halliburton was providing from channeling in the hole, thus weakening the well seal.

But that same day, Morel sent an e-mail message to Gagliano saying BP was going to use only six centralizers, adding that it was “too late” to send any more of the safety devices.

Gagliano’s models showed a high risk of gas flow in a well with so few centralizers. He appealed to BP officials who worked in his office to use 21 centralizers.

It is this methane gas that flowed up the 3-mile-deep hole, up a mile-long riser through the Gulf waters and to the rig to ignite, killing 11 men. But it’s not clear whether the gas that burst out of the well leaked in through cement linings or whether it came up from the bottom and through the middle of the hole.

After expressing his concern, Gagliano said he stayed up late the night of April 15 with two BP officials and persuaded them to arrange for sending 15 more centralizers to the rig. The devices arrived the next morning, but later Gagliano found out BP decided not to use them. BP engineering team members Morel, Mark Hafle and Brett Cocales never responded to his e-mail asking why.

A Halliburton employee who was on the rig, Nathaniel Chaisson, testified Tuesday that he got equally little explanation from one of the two top BP officials on the Deepwater Horizon, Don Vidrine.

In July, John Guide, BP wells team leader, testified the centralizers were the wrong kind and were left on the rig deck, unused.

Gagliano’s concern about BP’s plan to use fewer centralizers did not mean he was afraid of a blowout, he said. Rather, he said he was worried Halliburton would have to go in and essentially redo its work because he assumed BP would find the cement had channeled.

Channeling occurs when cement flows unevenly, leaving the thinner sections susceptible to a breach.

But BP decided not to run a cement bond log, the test that would have shown problems with the cement’s integrity. As The Times-Picayune first exposed in May, BP decided to send home a standby crew from oil-field services company Schlumberger without having them run the test, saving time and more than $100,000.

Centralizers and the cement bond log are just two of the decisions in which BP apparently chose less safe designs or processes. The company also decided to use a single, long string of pipe to line the center of the hole, rather than a shorter final liner that could have placed an additional barrier against gas. BP e-mail messages at the time note that the long string would save time and money.

BP also went without a bottoms-up test, in which drilling fluid is circulated through the well to check whether gas has entered at the bottom. Gagliano testified that it was Halliburton’s best practice to perform a bottoms-up test on each well and officially recommended the procedure.

Chaisson testified that a day before the accident, Robert Kaluza, who serves as BP’s company man along with Vidrine, said, “I’m afraid we’ve blown something higher up in the casing string,” but didn’t explain what he meant.

Kaluza is the other witness, along with Morel, who has refused to testify. Vidrine has also declined to appear as a witness three times, citing illness.

BP also decided the well had passed an important test of how well it holds up under pressure when many, including an official for rig-owner Transocean who testified Tuesday, believed the test results were troubling.

Daun Winslow, a Transocean manager who was touring the rig with other shore-side officials from Transocean and BP the day it blew, said when he stopped by the drill shack less than six hours before the explosions,”It appeared there was some confusion about pressures or volumes circulated around that time, and I heard the word negative test,” Winslow said. “I thought it was not a good environment to have a tour group there.”

At that point, Winslow asked the top Transocean official on the rig, Jimmy Harrell, and Miles Ezell, the senior toolpusher, to break away from the tour group and stay with the drill team.

Later, Winslow said Harrell told him everything was OK on the drill floor.

Rig and shore-side officials interpreted the test results to mean it was safe to proceed in removing heavy drilling mud that is meant, in part, to counterbalance the gas that shot to the surface and set the rig on fire.

The first time the test was run, 15 barrels of drilling fluid escaped from the well. None should have. A second test with more pressure on a valve in the blowout preventer showed worrisome increases in pressure on a drill pipe, but no fluid was lost.

There are conflicting reports as to how this was determined to be a good result. Winslow, who has 34 years of experience, testified that a successful test should show no increase in pressure on the drill pipe.

Winslow testified Tuesday that “the customer,” in this case BP, would have made the decision that the test was a success. But Harrell, a Transocean employee, testified at hearings in June in Kenner that he was not concerned by the results of either negative test.

BP’s lawyer, Richard Godfrey, fought back against testimony by Halliburton witnesses by questioning how seriously Gagliano and Chaisson challenged the BP centralizer plan.

He showed that Gagliano mentioned but didn’t emphasize the risks of fewer centralizers, then questioned why Gagliano would have signed a design recommendation on April 18 that said nothing about the centralizer issue. Gagliano said the statement he signed on the report was automatically generated, and he didn’t intend it as an endorsement of the BP plans to use only six centralizers.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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