The House Commerce Committee is holding the third hearing into what went wrong on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig (CSPAN is showing it on CSPAN3). As is typical for a Waxman/Stupak hearing, the Committee has done its homework, advancing the understanding of what went wrong.
Henry Waxman’s opening statement reveals that the well failed a number of tests, but BP kept testing until getting a passing test, and then proceeded to close the well.
Rigs like the Deepwater Horizon keep a daily drilling report. Transocean has given us the report for April 20, the day of the explosion. It is an incomplete log because it ends at 3:00 p.m., about seven hours before the explosion. But it confirms that three positive pressure tests were conducted in the morning to early afternoon.
The next bullet says: “After 16.5 hours waiting on cement, a test was performed on the wellbore below the Blowout Preventer.” BP explained to us what this means. Halliburton completed cementing the well at 12:35 a.m. on April 20 and after giving the cement time to set, a negative pressure test was conducted around 5:00 p.m. This is an important test. During a negative pressure test, the fluid pressure inside the well is reduced and the well is observed to see whether any gas leaks into the well through the cement or casing.
According to James Dupree, the BP Senior Vice President for the Gulf of Mexico, the well did not pass this test. Mr. Dupree told Committee staff on Monday that the test result was “not satisfactory” and “inconclusive.” Significant pressure discrepancies were recorded.
As a result, another negative pressure test was conducted. This is described in the fourth bullet: “During this test, 1,400 psi was observed on the drill pipe while 0 psi was observed on the kill and the choke lines.”
According to Mr. Dupree, this is also an unsatisfactory test result. The kill and choke lines run from the drill rig 5,000 feet to the blowout preventer at the sea floor. The drill pipe runs from the drill rig through the blowout preventer deep into the well. In the test, the pressures measured at any point from the drill rig to the blowout preventer should be the same in all three lines. But what the test showed was that pressures in the drill pipe were significantly higher. Mr. Dupree explained that the results could signal that an influx of gas was causing pressure to mount inside the wellbore.
Another document provided by BP to the Committee is labeled “What Could Have Happened.” It was prepared by BP on April 26, ten days before the first document. According to BP, their understanding of the cause of the spill has evolved considerably since April 26, so this document should not be considered definitive. But it also describes the two negative pressure tests and the pressure discrepancies that were recorded.
What happened next is murky. Mr. Dupree told the Committee staff that he believed the well blew moments after the second pressure test. But lawyers for BP contacted the Committee yesterday and provided a different account. According to BP’s counsel, further investigation has revealed that additional pressure tests were taken, and at 8:00 p.m., company officials determined that the additional results justified ending the test and proceeding with well operations.
This confusion among BP officials appears to echo confusion on the rig. Information reviewed by the Committee describes an internal debate between Transocean and BP personnel about how to proceed. [my emphasis]