"Integrity is key word"

Jul 2010

Mike Simpson, chief of CANSCO, a well control equipment provider, believes integrity on every well starts with the well design.  He shares independent insights on the recent Mississippi Canyon 252 well blowout, and the value of integrity on safety valves.

When the tragic blowout sunk the Deepwater Horizon and took the lives of 11 crew members on April 20, questions where raised on who’s to blame and what went wrong on the loss of well control.  One of the key questions remaining is why the well control safety valve – the blowout preventer (BOP) – tucked below 5000 feet of water, was not effective in sealing the well.

BOPs use a system of massive hydraulics to choke off flow if oil or gas begins to surge up the well.  BOPs and the people who operate them are important mechanisms in well control.  These “failsafe” mechanisms are normally very reliable. But as to why Deepwater Horizon’s BOP failed to stem the flow is still unknown.

As the operator, BP will be largely held responsible to the US federal government.  It is the company in the spotlight, solely accountable for the worksite and for whatever happened there – even if they have delegated responsibilities to contractors and sub-contractors.  Transocean held responsilbility for the BOP, according to BP.

Earlier in a state inquiry, operator BP, drilling contract Transocean, who owns and operates the rig, and cementing subcontractor Halliburton pointed fingers at each other when the question of well integrity was raised. 

“Well control starts when you plan the well, and continues throughout the whole well construction process, right up until the very last activity,“ says Mike Simpson, CEO of Cansco, a Dubai-based well control equipment specialist.  “I always believe that the drilling contractor’s core competence has to be well control by default.”

In a drilling programme, however, a number of contingencies and redundancies should be primarily put in place by the operator.  It is the operator’s core responsibility to ensure the integrity of the well with a series of checks and balances upon the design and execution of the programme.

“Integrity is a key word,” says Simpson, who has embedded the word into his company’s mission statement. “There has to be integrity in the well design, integrity in the casing, integrity in cementing…there has to be integrity in every well construction activity.”

He explains that there is an increasing scale of incident severity – from a minor injury or loss level to a catastrophe level – a drilling plan should include built-in measures, various safeguards, and redundancy in systems and controls.  Both to reduce the possibility of incidents and minimize the severity of an incident.

“Before it gets to a level of catastrophe, some major things have to go wrong,” says the well control expert, with more than 25 years of experience in the field. ”It looks like in this case, all of these contingencies and redundancies were cancelled out for one reason or another.”

In controlling a well, Simpson illustrates that the last line of defense is the driller with his suite of indicators and his intuition, while the integrity of the installed BOP equipment is essential.

During a drilling operation, the well is continually “talking” to a driller through the real time drilling parameters being measured and recorded by the “mud logger,” a system that logs critical downhole information.  It is typically linked to a command centre onshore that shows the well’s condition in terms of pressures and the flowrates.

“The driller must have continuous awareness of what’s happening. “

He said the graph-like mud-logger readings in the Deepwater Horizon blowout hold key information and will play an important role in answering the critical questions surrounding this incident.

“The normal well control contingencies may have been cancelled out in this case, leaving the last line – the driller.”

“But it appears that what happened in this case is that by the time a problem had been identified the ability to respond effectively was severely limited,” he adds.  “Ultimately what happened was so sudden and significant that the driller had no or little time to react and activate the safety valve.”

Yet the cause of the indecent will not be finalized until they are able to kill the well, retrieve the BOP and address all the other outstanding questions raised during the investigation.

Simpson observes that there may have been a degree of complacency across the industry, especially in deepwater drilling as “the industry has been comfortable enough building contingencies in to their well plans but not into effective response plans for when things go drastically wrong.”

“They have thought that buy building in enough pro-active contingencies and redundancies in the well programme, equipment and the systems, they would never get to this point called catastrophe – unfortunately, that’s what happened this time.”

The chief of Cansco, which rents and tests BOPs, believes the industry should carefully evaluate its business model where the responsibility of operators, contractors, and subcontractors should be redefined and re-assigned with integrity as the integrator.

“We need to have integrity in our processes and procedures making sure that they are reliable. But at the end of the day, it’s people that operate the equipment and execute the work plan in line with established process and procedure,” he says.

“It always comes down to people.”

Pipeline Magazine – July 2010