New Revelations Of Argument Taking Place Between The Deep Water Horizon Rig Operator and BP’s Top Execs Hours Before First Explosion


Wall Street Journal

By MIGUEL BUSTILLO

KENNER, La.—More details have emerged about a disagreement between employees of rig operator Transocean Ltd. and oil giant BP PLC over how to begin shutting down the well just hours before it exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last month.

Testimony about the disagreement Wednesday, in a joint hearing here held by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service, which jointly regulate offshore drilling, is likely to bring increased scrutiny to the decisions BP made aboard the rig the day of the explosion, April 20. There is also likely to be more focus on whether Transocean should have done more to ensure proper procedures were carried out.

Douglas H. Brown, Transocean’s chief mechanic on the Deepwater Horizon rig, said key representatives from both companies had a heated argument in an 11 a.m. meeting on April 20. Less than 11 hours later, the well had a blowout, an uncontrolled release of oil and gas, killing 11 workers.

Mr. Brown said Transocean’s crew leaders including the rig operator’s top manager, Jimmy W. Harrell, strongly objected to a decision by BP’s top representative, or “company man,” over how to start removing heavy drilling fluid and replacing it with lighter seawater from a riser pipe connected to the well head. Such pipes act as conduits between the rig and the wellhead at the ocean floor, and carry drilling fluid in and out of the well.

Removing heavy drilling fluid prior to sealing a well is normal, but questions have emerged about whether the crew started the process without taking other precautionary measures against dangerous gas rising into the pipe.

It isn’t clear what Mr. Harrell objected to specifically about BP’s instructions, but the rig’s primary driller, Dewey Revette, and tool pusher, Miles Randall Ezell, both of Transocean, also disagreed with BP.

However, BP was in charge of the operation and the BP representative prevailed, Mr. Brown said.

“The company man was basically saying, ‘This is how it’s gonna be,’ ” said Mr. Brown, who didn’t recall the name of the BP representative in question.

Mr. Brown said he didn’t normally pay close attention to drilling discussions during the 11 a.m. meetings, which detailed all events on the rig that day. But he said he recalled the dispute, and the cynical reaction of Mr. Harrell as he walked away afterward, in light of the April 20 accident.

Mr. Harrell “pretty much grumbled in his manner, ‘I guess that is what we have those pinchers for,’ ” Mr. Brown testified. He said it was a reference to the shear rams on the drilling operation’s blowout preventer, which are supposed to sever the main pipe in case of a disaster.

The blowout preventer failed to stop gas from rising to the surface, causing the explosion, BP has said.

Mr. Harrell hasn’t testified and declined repeated requests for comment. Donald Vidrine, listed on Transocean’s documents as BP’s “company man” on April 20, couldn’t be reached for comment. Mr. Revette was among the 11 workers who were killed.

Mr. Vidrine was supposed to testify Thursday but dropped out, citing an undisclosed medical issue, according to a Coast Guard spokeswoman. Another top BP official who was scheduled to testify Thursday, Robert Kaluza, declined to do so, asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the Coast Guard spokeswoman said

BP declined to comment on the testimony. Transocean didn’t immediately have comment but has previously said BP has responsible for major decisions made on the rig.

Mr. Brown, who suffered head injuries during the accident and had to be airlifted to a hospital in Mobile, Ala., also described his own harrowing version of the fear and disorder that overtook the rig after the explosion. The blast knocked him into a hole and left him dazed, he said. When he traveled to the bridge to notify top officials about an injured co-worker, he said the room was in chaos.

When he went to the lifeboats, he said the man taking roll of the crew under the light of the flames consuming part of the deck appeared to be in shock. He said some people were unaccounted for, and he wasn’t sure anyone went to look for them.

“That struck me at the time, because this was a man who had known me nine years and was having trouble remembering my name,” Mr. Brown said.

Rig workers regularly conducted safety drills, and sometimes lowered empty lifeboats to the water for practice, but the tests almost always occurred at the same time: Sunday mornings.

“Never,” Mr. Brown said, when asked if a drill was ever conducted at night.

In addition to survivor testimony, the panel heard from Carl Ray Smith, a former U.S. Coast Guard official who now works on a mobile rig called the Ocean Courage, who said that Transocean’s unusual chain of command on the rig might have contributed to the confused chain of command after the explosion.

Mr. Smith said he acts as both offshore installation manager in charge of the drilling operation, and ship master in charge of marine safety issues, something he called traditional practice. But Transocean separated the responsibilities on Deepwater Horizon, which he considered problematic.

A Transocean attorney challenged Mr. Smith during questioning on the notion that it was unusual chain of command, but Mr. Smith held to his opinion.

“Going back to leadership 101…if you are suddenly thrust into an emergency, how to train is how you fight and in this organization they are shifting responsibility actually on the fly as an emergency occurs,” Mr. Smith said.

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