A former senior engineer on board a Transocean drillship in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico has filed a civil lawsuit alleging the offshore drilling contractor and its business partners put profits and production over safety by failing to disconnect from a deepwater well in time as a hurricane was bearing down on them last October.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Christopher Pleasant, was the Sr. Subsea Supervisor on the ultra-deepwater drillship Deepwater Asgard in the Green Canyon area of the GOM at the time of the late October 2020 hurricane. He brought the case under the Jones Act and general maritime law and is represented by offshore injury attorneys at Arnold & Itkin, LLP. Pleasant also happens to be a survivor of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. More lawsuits from additional employees on board the rig at the time have since piled on.
The initial complaint alleges that Transocean, Triton Voyager and BOE Exploration (aka Beacon) overruled the drillship captain’s order to disconnect from the well despite Hurricane Zeta headed directly towards them. By the time they did try to disconnect, it was too late and the conditions were pushing the drillship dangerously off location. At one point, the drillship lost an engine and began taking on water in two of its thrusters, forcing crews to “rig tarps to stop the water from reaching the remaining thrusters so the Captain could control the vessel,” according to the complaint.
BSEE Safety Alert
The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which overseas offshore drilling safety and environmental compliance on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf, it seems did not publicly acknowledge the incident until a safety alert issued five months after the storm on March 8, 2021, titled Inadequate Preparations in Advance of Inclement Weather Results in Excessive Rig Damage and Risk to Personnel.
“On Oct. 28, 2020, an active drillship in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) sustained major damage to various operational components while evacuating the rig from an area impacted by Hurricane Zeta,” BSEE said. “Although no personnel casualties were reported, the incident presented a potential threat to rig personnel due to delaying the initiation of emergency evacuation procedures by remaining on location as a result of underestimating the severity of the storm.”
Adding to the story, the safety alert also describes a seemingly-unrelated incident having to do with drilling operations that occurred six days prior the hurricane’s arrival.
According to the BSEE Safety Alert, on October 22, 2020 the well the Deepwater Asgard was attached to experienced a “kick” during operations, which the crew spent the next few days dealing with. It is unclear if this prior incident had any bearing on later decisions made in relation to the storm, and it was not mentioned anywhere in the initial complaint.
You may recognize the term “kick” from the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a “kick” is defined as “an entry of water, gas, oil, or other formation fluid into the wellbore during drilling.” It occurs when the pressure exerted by the column of drilling fluid is not great enough to overcome the pressure exerted by the fluids in the well drilled. While a “kick” by itself does not inherently result in a blowout, if prompt action is not taken to control it (or kill the well), a blowout can occur, like it did in the case of the Deepwater Horizon.
BSEE described the Asgard’s “kick” incident and the subsequent arrival of the hurricane as follows:
“As the tropical storm began developing on Oct. 22, the well experienced a kick/influx of formation fluids during operations. After circulating out the kick, the rig pumped a cement squeeze on Oct. 24. As the tropical storm transitioned into a hurricane Oct. 27, a packer was installed and tested as an additional barrier to further stabilize the well. The riser was displaced with seawater, and the work string, including the running tool, was pulled out of the hole in preparation for the hurricane. As Hurricane Zeta’s arrival became imminent on Oct. 28, wind gusts were much higher than anticipated (roughly 100 miles per hour).”
Due to the hurricane’s intensity, BSEE says the Deepwater Asgard was pushed off location toward the so-called “Red Watch Circle”, a term for the maximum deviation the riser can withstand while still attached to the subsea blowout preventer. This resulted in the activation of the “Emergency Disconnect Sequence (EDS)”, which triggered the the lower marine riser package (LMRP) to disconnect from the blowout preventer and allowed the rig to move off location on October 28.
According to the complaint, the drillship’s crew began to disconnect a day earlier, on the morning of October 27, but “calls started coming in from the shoreside offices” of Transocean and Beacon stating that the Deepwater Asgard needed to stay “latched”.
“The Captain ordered the crew to stop the unlatch process until a planned 4:00 p.m. phone call [on October 27] with officials back in Houston. At the 4:00 p.m. phone call, Transocean and Beacon ordered the vessel to stay latched despite Hurricane Zeta headed directly toward them. Plaintiff, along with other crewmembers on board, strongly disagreed with the decision to stay latched but had no other options but to obey orders,” the complaint states.
It wasn’t until 9:41 a.m. on October 28 when then captain finally ordered the crew to unlatch the vessel, the complaint alleges.
Offshore drilling experts say it’s important to distinguish between the roles of the Captain and drilling team. The captain (or Offshore Installation Manager) of a drillship has the overall responsibility over the rig and its crew. The plaintiff in this case was a member of the drilling or engineering team with in-depth and specialized knowledge of drilling operations.
According to BSEE, after the Emergency Disconnect Sequence (EDS) was initiated, severe swells caused the riser to contact the hull in the moonpool, causing damage to the riser. “Furthermore, the LMRP endured damage to its frame, piping, and coflex after contacting the seafloor several times.”
A comprehensive property damage assessment conducted after the storm had passed determined that “the tensioner, flex joint, telescopic joint, LMRP, riser joints, cabling, and other riser-related components had sustained significant damage,” BSEE said in the safety alert.
Although the drillship survived and no personnel casualties were reported, BSEE noted that the incident “presented a potential threat to rig personnel.”
Lawyers for the plaintiff claim the Deepwater Asgard was unseaworthy, the defendants’ actions were negligent, and this caused their client to be exposed to physical danger and emotional distress, which has since left him unable to work offshore or make a living. At least some workers on the rig, including the plaintiff, also sustained unspecified physical injuries, we are told.
“Despite numerous reports of Zeta’s arrival from weather experts and scientists, Transocean and Beacon failed to evacuate the Deepwater Asgard’s crew members from its path,” Arnold & Itkin, LLP wrote in a February 17, 2021 blog post, a few weeks prior to the release of the BSEE alert. The news was also picked up and reported behind a paywall by the Law360 website on February 19.
“The owners and operators of the Asgard had all the information they needed to authorize the crew to move the vessel to a safer position, but shoreside leadership failed to use good judgment, instead putting production and profits over safety. The crew members were essentially abandoned to contend with Hurricane Zeta on their own,” said Kurt Arnold, a partner at Arnold & Itkin, LLP, in response to our request for comment.
According to an October 2020 fleet update from Transocean, Deepwater Asgard was contracted by Beacon at a day rate of $240,000 per day, so as you can imagine any amount of downtime can really add up. An updated Fleet Status report from February shows the Deepwater Asgard was idled in January 2021.
(Note: The plaintiff in the lawsuit also happened to be a subsea supervisor on board the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded in 2010. As you will read in this article, after the accident he told a federal investigative panel that he activated the DWH’s emergency disconnect system (EDS), but the system failed to operate due to a lack of hydraulic pressure.)
Hurricane Zeta was a fast-moving but seemingly well-forecasted storm, at least from National Weather Service forecasts and once it was clear it was headed into the Gulf.
According to the BSEE safety alert, drillship personnel began monitoring weather disturbances on October 22, 2020, six days prior to when the storm eventually hit. “Throughout the six days, the drillship personnel were consistently advised by forecasters that ‘the [rig] location is not expected to see direct, significant impacts,'” BSEE said.
A National Weather Service overview of Hurricane Zeta after-the-fact said Zeta began as an area of disturbed weather on October 21 across the western Caribbean. Initially, Zeta was forecast to slowly develop and eventually move out to sea, but by October 23 forecasts began bringing it into the southern Gulf of Mexico, along with increased odds for development. At 5pm ET on October 25, a tropical depression formed (the 28th system of the 2020 hurricane season) and, within 12 hours, Zeta strengthened into a Tropical Storm. Over the next few days, Zeta steadily strengthened into a strong category 2 Hurricane as it turned north and then northeast towards Louisiana.
Hurricane watches and warnings along the Gulf Coast remained little changed since the first watch was issued at 1600 EDT on October 26, which you can see in the graphic below:
We reported on the storm on October 26 when it was clear that the Zeta was taking aim at the U.S. Gulf Coast and some oil producers began shutting in wells, pulling workers off platforms, and moving self-propelled dynamically positioned rigs (like Deepwater Asgard) off location.
An 11:30 a.m. update from the BSEE on October 27 said a total of nine DP rigs had moved off location and out of the hurricane’s projected path, representing 56.25% of the 16 dynamically positioned rigs operating in the Gulf at the time.
Zeta eventually made landfall at Cocodrie, Louisiana (roughly due south of Houma) around 4 p.m. CDT on October 28 with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph, a strong Category 2 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, according to the NWS.
The NWS overview is still preliminary and could change with the release of the National Hurricane Center’s final report of Hurricane Zeta found here when available which, as of publishing, it was not.
It is worth mentioning that just a few weeks before Zeta, Hurricane Delta had just dealt the greatest blow to U.S. offshore Gulf of Mexico energy production since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, disrupting the GOM’s oil and gas production for at least 11 days. In fact, from October 8-11, as much as 91% of the GOM’s oil production and 61% of gas production was shut-in, according to BSEE statistics. During Delta, a maximum of 15 DP rigs (out of 17 in the GOM) had moved off location on October 8.
You may recall, 2020’s Atlantic Hurricane Season was so active that it was only the second time the Greek alphabet has been used to name storms. The first was during the 2005 hurricane season (Katrina and Rita) and, as it happens, the last named storm that year was Zeta. As you can see in the graph below, these 2020 shut-ins severely impacted the GOM’s crude production during the most active weather months and October in particular:
Another Deepwater Horizon Avoided?
News of the incident and lawsuit(s) has gained attention recently following an April 5, 2021 press release from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a non-profit whose stated mission is to support and protect public employees who seek a higher standard of accountability and environmental protection.
“This event came frighteningly close to another Deepwater Horizon catastrophe,” said Rick Steiner, an expert in offshore oil operations, retired University of Alaska professor and PEER Board Member. “This does not appear to have been caused by mechanical failure but by a combination of irresponsible corporate decisions and lax governmental oversight – a potentially deadly combination.”
Steiner has now filed a complaint with the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General related to the incident.
“Interior Secretary Haaland should order an in-depth inquiry into the Deepwater Asgard incident, the failures leading up to it, and what needs to be done to prevent another such near casualty in the future,” said Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch. “This incident raises serious questions as to how effective our offshore drilling safety rules are and whether they are adequately enforced.”
The BSEE was actually formed in 2011 in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster (along with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, aka BOEM). At the time of Hurricane Zeta, BSEE was led by Director Scott Angelle, a Trump Administration appointee who served from May 2017 to January 2021. Both BSEE and BOEM fall under the U.S. Department of the Interior, which was responsible for implementing the Trump Administration’s America-First Offshore Energy Strategy as part of administration’s ambition to achieve “American energy dominance”.
Coincidently, on October 22, 2020 it was widely reported that Transocean planned to layoff between 50 and 110 rig works on the Deepwater Asgard at the end of its contract. The layoffs were expected to begin December 15, reports said.
In response to our request for comment on the incident, a spokesperson for Transocean said they cannot comment on pending litigation.
The BSEE sent us the following statement:
“The timing of a Safety Alert is not dependent upon a specific event or timeline. Once our safety experts understand the causal factors from the internal investigation, we develop and distribute a Safety Alert to inform the offshore energy industry of the incident circumstances and provide recommendations that may reduce the likelihood of a recurrence of such an incident. The “kick” mentioned in the March 8, 2021 Safety Alert occurred on Oct. 22, 2020, six days prior to Hurricane Zeta arriving. A cement squeeze* was pumped on Oct. 24, 2020, which resolved the kick prior to the drillship disconnecting due to the storm on the morning of Oct. 28, 2020.”
* A cement squeeze is a cementing operation designed to force cement into a wellbore to stop the flow from the reservoir(s). The required squeeze pressure is achieved by carefully controlling pump pressure. Once the cement has been successfully placed, the well is no longer flowing.
Finally, the BSEE alert included several recommendations for offshore operators and contractors, which as always we encourage you to read for yourself especially if you work in this area.
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