What happened at Deepwater Horizon?

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CU Professor Jana Milford joins former U.S. Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter, at right, and U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Paul Hsieh, at center, at a reception after their special lecture.

CU engineering students got a grim look at what can happen in the absence of adequate safety procedures when two experts on the massive 2010 Gulf oil spill visited CU-Boulder in January.

The Deepwater Horizon accident killed 11 workers, injured 17 others, and resulted in the leakage of 200 million gallons of oil, damaging hundreds of miles of coastal habitat and wreaking havoc on wildlife and livelihoods throughout the region.

Donald Winter, former secretary of the Navy, professor of engineering practice at the University of Michigan, and chair of the National Academies committee that investigated the accident, provided an in-depth look at what happened and what needs to change to prevent such a disaster from happening in the future.

“What we found was not one major bad decision, but a whole series of them, all of which reflect the lack of a safety culture,” Winter told an overflow audience of more than 400 people in the Math 100 Auditorium.

CU Professor Jana Milford, who serves as director of the Environmental Engineering Program, said she was pleased by the turnout of students to the special lecture. “I was really jarred by this event because it was so preventable. By learning more about what happened, I think we can encourage a stronger culture around safety.”

Among the critical mistakes that Winter highlighted in his presentation was the decision to displace the drilling mud with sea water despite insufficient testing of the cement intended to secure the Macondo well between the drilling and production phases. The cement’s failure led directly to the release of combustible gas, which enveloped the drill rig in low wind conditions, and combined with a questionable venting method, made ignition “all but inevitable.”

“There are ways to remediate a bad cement job if you do sufficient testing to find out about it,” Winter said. Instead, after multiple negative pressure tests were deemed inconclusive, “they effectively redesigned success to be consistent with the results they observed.”

The geology of the reservoir formation, which encompassed multiple zones of varying pore pressure and fracture gradients, posed significant challenges to the drilling team, he noted, and the drilling approach that was selected failed to provide adequate margins of safety.

The companies involved were surprised by some of the risks and the inability of safety devices such as the blowout preventer to avoid ultimate disaster. The blowout preventer was neither designed nor tested for the dynamic conditions that existed, and the companies involved shouldn’t have counted on it working, he said. “They are good devices, but not fail-safe.”

Winter and the committee also faulted regulators for ineffectively addressing the risks of the well.

According to their final report, “Neither the companies involved nor the regulatory community has made effective use of real-time data analysis, information on precursor incidents or near misses, or lessons learned in the Gulf of Mexico and worldwide to adjust practices and standards appropriately.”

Capping the flow

“Sometimes when you’re in the right place at the right time, you get to do something interesting. That’s what happened to me in the summer of 2010.”

>Read Hsieh’s gripping tale of the government science team’s efforts to cap the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

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