Deepwater Horizon Hearings – Live Blogging

Deepwater Horizon Investigation

This morning the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and Minerals Management Service (MMS) began the second part of the Deepwater Horizon Investigation at the Radisson hotel in Kenner Louisiana. Earlier this month the USCG, MMS and third party workboat personnel involved with rig testified as to their knowledge of the events. This week’s hearing brings the granular knowledge of experts, vessel personnel and persons of interest. A complete list of witnesses can be found on the official Deepwater Horizon (DWH) Investigation website.

The USCG is taking the lead in this investigation under the direction of Captain Hung Nguyen, USCG. Despite the USCG’s lead, this is a joint investigation between the USCG and MMS. The bulk of the questions are posed to each witness by the USCG and MMS representatives but each Party Of Special Interest, is given an opportunity to ask questions.

gCaptain staff are on location in Kenner and will provide a brief outline of questions asked/answered on this post with a follow-up article coming soon. Comments indented are those of gCaptain and not necessarily the opinions of expert witnesses. If you have specific questions about the testimony, please leave them as a comment to our related forum post found HERE.

Board Members for the hearings are :

  • Capt. Hung Nguyen, USCG – co-chair
  • Mr. David Dykes, MMS – co-chair
  • Mr. Russ Wheatley, USCG
  • Mr. Jason Matthews, MMS
  • Mr. John McCarroll, MMS
  • 6. Lt. Robert Butts, USCG – recorder

Captain Carl Smith, Offshore Expert

The first witnesses called is Captain Carl Smith, Master/OIM of the MODU Ocean Courage, a Marshal Islands flagged, ABS classes, Class II Dynamically Positioned Semi-Submersible. He has been called to provide expert witness testimony as to the marine side of deepwater offshore operations, most likely because of his unique combination of USCG and offshore drilling operations (confirmed that the USCG was the organization that requested he provide testimony).

Background:

  • Master/OIM Ocean Courage
  • 20 Years in USCG SWO
  • MSC Training Team
  • Been in oil field since 1995
  • 1972 USCG Academy
  • OIM North Sea – Ocean Guardian, Ocean Princess
  • Master/OIM Q4000\

The first set of questions posed to Captain Smith brought into question Transocean’s (TOI’s) unique dynamic between the OIM and the Master.

In the majority off deepwater drilling companies, and for US flagged MODU’s (the GSF Explorer) being an example  as per the CFR’s, the Master of the vessel is both Captain and OIM, and thus, is ultimately in charge of all operations whether the rig is drilling, underway or in an emergency situation. But on Transocean vessels, the Master is only in charge when the vessel transits between drilling location or is an emergency situation… during drilling the OIM,  a separate person certificated but not licensed by the USCG, is in charge of all operations.

Many questions were asked of Capt. Smith about Transocean’s unusual relationship between the Master and OIM. This is a “Hot Topic” because, at the critical time of explosion aboard command transfered from the OIM to the Master.

Questions were asked about Blow Out Preventer (BOP), with specific questions asked about Class (ABS) and Flag State Marshall Islands (MI), MMS and USCG inspection of BOP’s. Specifically which regulatory bodies witness testing of BOP functions. Lead investigator, Captain M. Nguyen, asked whether pressure was put on the contractor when the BOP is on deck, how much time the BOP spends on deck (versus in the water) and who pays for downtime during BOP inspections and maintenance. Questions were also asked, by more than one person, about who typically has the authority to activate the sheer rams and Emergency Disconnect System (EDS). Finally, a few individuals asked questions about acoustic functioning of BOP’s.

The failure of the Blow Out Preventer has been a hot topic since the incident. BOP Time-On-Deck was one significant issue. BOP’s normally live at the wellhead, staying far below the water for the entire time it takes to drill a well. Historically, wells could be drilled in less than a month but, now that the “easy oil” has already been extracted, wells have to be drilled deeper and under more complicated scenarios. This takes time. Captain Smith stated that he knows of BOP’s that have remained submerged for over a year.

Only limited testing (mostly pressure tests and visual look-overs by ROV’s) can be done while the BOP is underwater, in order to do a complete set of tests and inspections the BOP has to be pulled up and placed on-deck. Pulling the BOP takes a significant amount of time so owners often wait until a well is completed before pulling the BOP. If the well takes longer than expected, the BOP can be underwater while inspections and regular preventative maintenance tasks can back-up.

Some in the industry has called for periodic inspections and maintenance where, regardless of whether the vessel is drilling or not, the BOP is placed on deck every 4 months for a full round of testing. The USCG asked specifically “With dayrates being so high how does a contractor balance operations and safety?”.

The other questions is, when the BOP is pulled, do the subsea engineers have enough time to perform all the work that’s been backing up since the last time it saw daylight, or are they pressured to complete maintenance quickly to “get back to drilling”.

The DWH reflagged in 2005 from Panama to Marshall Islands and questions were asked about why a company would want to reflag a vessel. Questions were also asked about Minimum Safe Manning Certificates (MSMC). MSMC’s are documents issued by the flag state (Marshall Islands) that tell the vessel owner the minimum number of Licensed and/or certified persons that are required onboard to operate the vessel safely.

Further questions about the process that MI uses to license and certify people to work aboard these vessels. The difference in standards between Panama, the flag state of the vessel after it was built, the Marshall Islands and the USCG.

After incidents occur the qualifications and training of the people working aboard rigs come into question. The issue is if Transocean used unlicensed personnel in areas where regulations require USCG licenses and did they have sufficient qualified personnel to deal with emergencies. Was the engine room properly manned?

Other questions asked of Capt. Smith:

Locations of Emergency Disconnect (EDS) buttons and “who has knowledge of their operation”.

An EDS panel has easy to push buttons that send commands to the BOP to perform functions like shearing in the pipe and closing in the well. It remains unclear if this is the sole call of the OIM, the Master or an operator (DPO or Driller)

Locations of Emergency Shut Down (ESD) buttons and “who has knowledge of their operation”.

An ESD panel has easy to push buttons that shut-down electricity, machines and ventilation to areas of the rig (or the entire rig at once). Shutting down ventilation prevents gas from entering critical areas and shutting down electricity/machinery eliminates sources of ignition that cause gas to ignite.

The USCG asked Captain Smith the weight of the Companyman’s input in the decision making process.

The companyman (BP titles them Well Site Leaders) is the on-site representative for BP and his primary purpose is to assure that the rig is operated in the client’s best interest. Policy allows any Transocean policy to shut-down a job they consider unsafe but Mr. Smith admits that, while many companymen work to help the contractor work safely, some companyman are concerned with time and become adversaries pushing their agenda.

Specific to well control situations if the Master, OIM and companyman disagree… who has ultimate authority? Is there a conflict having the OIM in charge of well control operations and the Captain in charge of vessel safety?

While fire, collisions, sinking and all other emergency procedures are the expertise of the Captain, well control is the one critical emergency that a person with a drilling background would have more experience and hands on knowledge that a Captain who has a background in ship operations. Transocean and BP particularly asked Capt. Smith specific well control questions with the apparent motive of gauging his level of expertise on well control compared to that of a driller.

Transocean asked, “You said that contractors switch flags for tax reasons. Isn’t there any better reason to reflag?”

Captain Smith said, no, tax saving was the only reason he knew of. But in fact their are other reasons both positive (a higher level of expertise in MODU operations, better track record for safety, less port state detentions) and negative (lax rules, issuance of more exceptions, rules written specifically to attract owners).

Steve Gordon, a lawyer representing a number of the Horizon workers injured and killed, asked specific questions about the MSMC’s:

  • I’d like to talk about MSMC’s. Does the MSMC list the Kilowatt’s (KWs) of the generators and auxiliary equipment.
  • What is the typical compliment of engine rooms on a modu.
  • Asked the difference between ESD and EDS? Should their be an EDS in the ECR?
  • Should there be an EDS in the Engine Control Room?
  • In a blowout Is it correct that gas will enter the pit room, shaker house, etc? (Capt. Smith: Yes)
  • What is the standard way to deal with a gas in these areas? (Capt Smith: Evacuate personnel from the area immediately)

The Kilowatt capacity of the ship systems is important because Marshall Islands, as per IMO’s principals of safe manning, does not dictate manning levels. Rather it’s up to  the owner to propose what constitutes safe manning levels on their rigs. The Marshall Islands takes the ship owner’s application and gauge it against similar ships of similar KW power and tonnage.

Captain Smith stated that the typical Engine Room compliment of a MODU is 2 licensed personnel and a motorman on watch at all times. This is in addition to the 2 off-tower licensed engineers, the off-duty motorman, a Chief Engineer (who works days) and a 1st Assistant Engineer (works nights).

Captain Smith stated that most Engine Control Rooms don’t have an EDS to disconnect the BOP from the wellhead. While not stated by Smith, some believe that the most basic disconnect buttons be placed in the ECR because that space also holds the back-up DP console for operating the rig if the bridge is on fire.

IT is believed that the Horizon did have a panel with individual ESD functions to shutdown specific equipment but shutdowns of areas or the entire rig, could only be done through the Vessel Management System. Further, the next witness, Mr. Brown said that Transocean did not have a procedure to execute an emergency shutdown from the ECR.

Decidedly absent from the line of questioning were the problems exposed by gCaptain prior to the incident.

No questions were asked about the validity of a Nautical Institute Dynamic Positioning (DP) certificate or questions about whether the USCG should begin regulating DPO’s at the level of Ballast Control Operators’.

Douglas Brown, Chief Mechanic

The second witness was Douglas Brown, Chief Mechanic standing watch in the engine room at the time of the incident. Brown shared his difficult story and this was followed by questions from the panel the most interesting of which included:

Can you describe your educational background?

Brown answered that he had some college, Army experience in helicopter repair mechanic, and trades schools.

Did you have any education that qualifies you to be a Ch Mechanic on an oil rig?

Brown admitted that he had no formal training but that Transocean sent him to equipment specific training directly with manufacturers.

The USCG asked Mr. Brown a specific set of personal questions including:

  • What is your normal watch cycle:
  • How much sleep did you get during the nights prior to the incident?
  • Did you take any medication?
  • Where you under any unusual stress or have any personal issues at the time?

These questions are getting more common as the findings of incidents like the Cosco Busan and Staten Island Ferry, contributed some of the fault to medications and the mental state of the individuals operating those ships. These incidents have also resulted in new regulations to assure mariners are healthy to sale.

Where you aware of any pressures from TOI or BP on completing the last well?

Brown responded: “It was passed around that the well was taking too long and they were in a hurry to complete it and move onto the next well”

Where you aware that Senior BP and TOI personnel where aboard the vessel? (Brown: Yes)

Brown was then asked a significant number of questions about the air intakes locations for the engines the electrical, mechanical and RigSaver devices that failed to shutdown the engines when gas got into the intakes. He also stated operational information like 2 engines being online at the time, Engine #3 most likely being the unit that exploded first and that all other engines were operational but not running at the time.

Doug was asked about the number of personnel manning the engine room and if this number has changed since the vessel was built? He replied that the rig started with a full compliment of Engineers but in 2003, after Transocean acquired the rig in a merger, a mechanical supervisor was put in charge of the engine room and licensed engineers were cut. Finally, a year and a half ago, a 1st A/E was brought back.

Finally, and most dramatically with Steve Gordon imitating a southern drawl asked about an incident in the pretour meeting where the OIM was said to have laid out the well plan which included leaving the mud in the riser and the BP companyman interrupted with the order to displace the mud with seawater. Upon leaving the meeting, Mr. Brown overheard the OIM grumbling “Well, sigh, I guess that’s what those pinchers are for”. Brown believed that pinchers was a reference to the sheer rams of the BOP.

American Bureau of Shipping

ABS sent two persons to testify; David Forsyth, ABS’ MODU guru who widely considered one of the top experts in MODU regulation. He was followed by Arinjit Roy, a Maine Maritime graduate working for ABS who conducted the last 5 inspections of the Horizon.

Very little was said of interest by Forsyth mostly because the questions from the panel did little to pry into the history of incidents aboard the Horizon or look into incidents and deficiencies on other Transocean rigs. The one item of interest was that ABS admitted only 4% of MODU owners get ABS certifications for drilling systems which include the BOP.

Mr. Roy was also asked specifically how much interaction he has with non-licensed Transocean OIM’s. Roy replied that he dealt almost exclusively with the rig’s captain and the OIM, while typically attending the initial meeting, had no involvement in the inspection itself.

MMS asked Roy specific questions about the inspection and certification of ventilation, particularly ventilation supplying the engine room. Roy said that ABS performs visual examinations of vents but not full inspections or certification. It remains unclear what ventilation systems where tied into the vessel’s ESD system.

BP’s representative then asked Roy when the last time was that ABS inspected the BOP’s EDS, the disconnect sequence sent to the BOP to shear the pipe, close in the well and separate the riser string from the wellhead. Roy responded that ABS does not inspect the EDS and that he personally has never inspected the BOP or EDS.

BP’s representative then asked Roy when the last time was that ABS inspected the BOP’s ESD. Roy commented that area and total shutdown buttons where not activated during the ABS inspections but that inspection paperwork is reviewed every 5 years.

David McKay – Det Norske Veritias

As a classification society DNV is a competitor of ABS. Maritime rules allow the vessel to be classed with one society, in this case ABS, and have specific aspects of the operation verified by another society. In the Horizon’s case DVN assured ISM, MARPOL, ISPS and other management systems that relate mostly to company, vessel and other miscellaneous paperwork.

MI asked McKay whether blowout and BOP procedures where required by ISM code and whether it was his duty to inspect such drilling procedures. McKay said yes to both questions.

McKay said that multiple “Safety critical” items listed in their Preventative Maintenance system where, at least, 6 moths overdue. He further clarified that town was made aware of these deficiencies and that the crew produced emails with town asking for help in acquiring spare parts to complete the required maintenance.

McKay shared that the Horizon crew was deficient in required training. The explanation given was that training requirements had recently been updated by the company and there was a high % of new personnel aboard.

Richard “Steve” Tink – BP America

Steve is the HS&E leader for BP operations in the Gulf. The USCG asked him his background, education and experience with BP. He was then asked whether he held any merchant marine documents, he replied; no.

The first set of questions asked where targeted questions about the bridging document, which is a document signed by both Transocean and BP. The document serves to identify differences in each organization’s safety policies and identify which company’s policy will be used for each line item.

Tink was asked about BP’s ISM compliance and he was asked to identify BP’s Designated Person as required by ISM code.

The board asked if the Ballast Incident aboard the Horizon was reported to BP (yes) and what his role was in the investigation. He said the incident was investigated by an outside agency who’s report he reviewed.

The USCG specifically asked about BP’s policy on knives stating that an issue came up with crew-members not having knives which prevented them from quickly deploying the liferaft to escape the rig. Knives, even pocket Rescue Knifes designed for emergency rescue, are not allowed during day-to-day operations. Instead approved cutting devices need to be used on all BP contracted rigs. These knives do not perform well in emergencies but Mr. Tink did not know how BP’s policy effected emergency response.

Mr Tink was asked about the rig visit on the day of the incident in which BP was stated to be visiting to commend the Horizon for their safety. Mr. Tink said that the visit was a routine regular scheduled visit and was not set up to commend the rig. The BP VIP visitors were Pat Obrien, Drilling VP and David Simms, drilling operations manger.

Mr. Tink stated that he is expert in occupational safety but not in marine or emergency safety. The board did not ask why occupational safety outstrips major emergency management in their corporate structure. They did not call the person who is in charge of Major Emergency or Marine response for BP (or Transocean for that matter). Several statistics and spreadsheets where looked out that tracked Lost time incidents but no spreadsheets on marine emergency response figures. Regardless of marine emergencies, Mr. Tink had little knowledge of drilling emergencies, specifically blowouts of the type on the Horizon.

Mr. Mathews of MMS asked if Tink knew the dayrate of the Horizon, he didn’t. Mathews continued to extrapolate an educated guess for the vessel’s dayrate out to the lenght of the well. What Mathews missed was that the actually day-rate of the vessel is about half of BP’s total daily cost since it does not include the costs of workboats, helicopters, fuel, food, salaries, 3rd party contracts and the myriad of other costs BP accepts.

Steve Gordon asked Mr. Tink, what lessons where learned from the Texas City incident that were put in place in BP’s offshore drilling. Mr. Tink took a long breath and discussed the movement of temporary buildings away from blast zones but did not have an answer for broader lessons learned. BP’s lawyers objected when Steve asked about transfer of knowledge from the Texas City blast stating that this investigation needs to stay on track in finding the reasons for this incident.

Captain Nguyen, asked “Who is responsibility for Safety of with BP”. The answer included steering committees, process vs people and layers. Tink had considerable knowledge of OSHA regs (which do not apply offshore) but did not have any knowledge of ISM code or maritime regulations that pertain to MODU’s. There was no clear designated person who has direct access to the highest levels of management, as required by ISM code.

Captain Nguyen, asked “What lessons from the Thunderhorse where implemented on the Horizon?”. Mr. Tink did not have an answer.

Adrian Rose, VP QHS&E Transocean

Captain Rose served as master in the UK Merchant Navy (a refreshing fact!) before going offshore and working as OIM among other jobs. Rose discussed how TOI’s safety management system is enacted and described the specifics of THINK, START and CAKE along with programs like “I made a difference”.

The USCG asked if there is standard procedures for routine operations. Rose described the TSTP (Task Specific Think Procedure program but these are safety oriented and are not procedures on HOW to do a job in a safe manner. There was no mention of checklists, assignment of personnel, photo documentation, steps or other means of helping to follow a process on doing the job that don’t relate directly to safety.

Other questions:

“Who is ultimately responsible for safety management?” Rose answered the CEO is ultimately responsible but TOI follows a process of line management.

“Can you describe how the Horizon’s safety management worked, specifically in terms of the bridging document?”

“Can you discuss how incidents and TRIR rates are tracked and managed in Transocean?”

Through today’s investigation there has been much talk of incidents between the level of first aid case, minor cuts and bruise, and Lost Time Incidents, where people can’t immediately return to work. What has not been discussed by Transocean or BP is the tracking and managing large incidents.. fires, explosions, ballast incidents and blow-outs. gCaptain wants to know how the Deep Seas fire, Horizon ballast situation, Deep seas engine explosion, Enterprise riser break, D534’s inability to pull riser in heavy weather, Spirit’s leak of fuel oil in a thruster room and the myriad of other LARGE incidents , that did not hurt anyone, but had the potential to be an incident the size of the Horizon blow-out.

Has Transocean implemented any safety changes since the Horizon Incident? Rose replied that the USCG alert was sent to rigs world-wide and all rigs should review their equipment and procedures that relate to the alert.

“Are you familiar with any demanning of the Horizon during the period of 2003-2004?” Rose replied that he did not know of any demanning of the Horizon apart from a possible response to a crane fire incident that occurred on that rig.

The BP representative asked:

  • Who is person on the rig responsible for well control procedures? (Rose: The OIM and the drilling department lead by the Sr. Toolpusher?)
  • Who is responsible for BOP safety, maintenance and inspection? (Rose: The Sr Subsea Engineer)
  • Are you familiar with the levels of emergency procedures on the Horizon? (Rose: No)
  • In the event of a well flowing and well control not being established, who is in charge of the hull and vessel, The OIM or Master? (Rose: The OIM)
  • Does the Master have to ask the OIM’s permission before the EDS is activated. (Rose: No)
  • Did the RSTC have the right to stop the job on the Horizon? (Rose: Yes, along with every other person aboard the Horizon. Everyone aboard our rigs has the right to stop a job)

Captain Nguyen asked:

What activities are done by Transocean as a company to follow the ISM code? (Rose: In Transocean we adopted the philosophy that we want to operate the entire fleet the same, therefore we structured our policies so they incorporate all facets of the code.)

So if you have a vessel where deficiencies are found in multiple areas would you be concerned? (Rose: Yes and we would have investigated such occurrence if we had been aware of it).

The END of 26 May

Coverage will continue tomorrow but with out testimony from the BP Companyman who has exercised his constitutional right to remain silent.