Friday, January 28, 2011

Shifting Procedures Upset BP's Rig Team

Workers Were 'at Wits End,' Say Emails Days Before Blast

Just days before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, the onshore BP PLC manager in charge of the drilling rig warned his supervisor that last-minute procedural changes were creating "chaos" on the rig.
"The operation is not going to succeed if we continue in this manner," wrote John Guide, who directed the Deepwater Horizon's operations from BP's Houston offices.
Fire boats battled the blazing remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off Louisiana on April 21, 2010, a day after it exploded. The accident killed 11 and unleashed the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
His supervisor, David Sims, told him to tell rig workers "to hang in there." Then Mr. Sims signed off to attend a dance practice, promising to call later in the day: "We're dancing to the Village People!" he wrote.
In a follow-up email that evening, Mr. Guide appeared mollified. "I totally concur," Mr. Guide wrote back. "I told them all we will work through it together. I want to do better."
Three days later, the rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and setting off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Investigators have cited confusion over changes at the well in the preceding weeks as a key cause of the accident.
The April 17 emails, which were given to government investigators by BP and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, are among the most direct evidence yet that BP workers on the rig were stressed out by the numerous changes, and had voiced their concerns to BP's operations managers in Houston. That could raise further questions about whether BP managers took enough time to consider the consequences of changes they were ordering on the rig, an issue investigators say contributed to the disaster.
BP has said much of the blame for the disaster rests on its contractors, especially rig ownerTransocean Ltd. and Halliburton Co., which did cement work on the well.
In a statement Friday, BP said, "Issues addressed in the emails have been the subject of numerous investigations, and the issues discussed are not inconsistent with any published findings."
Both Transocean and Halliburton have previously defended their work on the well.
The emails focus on procedural issues and continuing alterations of plans for the Macondo well, which had proved difficult to drill for many months. They don't suggest that either Mr. Guide or Mr. Sims was concerned about an immediate safety risk.
On the morning of April 17, three days before the explosion, Mr. Guide sent the email to Mr. Sims to complain that "there has been so many last minute changes to the operation" that the rig's on-board managers had "finally come to their wits end."
"The quote is 'flying by the seat of our pants,' " Mr. Guide wrote.
Mr. Sims replied about 90 minutes later, telling Mr. Guide that the team working on the well should remain positive "until this well is over."
"It should be obvious to all that we could not plan ahead for the well conditions we're seeing, so we have to accept some level of last minute changes," he wrote to Mr. Guide.
On Friday, Mr. Guide referred calls to his lawyer, who said that his client "has done everything he could to bend over backwards to be as helpful as he can to any legitimate inquiry." Mr. Sims couldn't immediately be reached for comment. BP would not discuss whether the two men continued to hold those jobs, saying it was a personnel matter.
BP made several changes to the design of the well in the weeks leading up to the disaster, ultimately choosing an option that investigators say was riskier than other alternatives. The company also repeatedly altered its procedure for finishing up the well, which sowed confusion aboard the rig, according to subsequent testimony from workers. And a week before the explosion, BP made a series of rapid-fire changes to its drilling permit that were unusual, according to a Journal analysis of federal permit data going back to 2004.
BP has denied that its changes increased risk on the well or confused the crew.
Safety experts have long said that frequent procedural changes increase the risk of an accident, because they can create confusion and affect other operations in unintended ways.
BP had rules in place governing procedural changes, but its workers didn't consistently follow them, according to BP's September internal report on the disaster and the report released earlier this month by the presidential commission on the accident.
"Such decisions appear to have been made by the BP Macondo team in ad hoc fashion without any formal risk analysis or internal expert review," the commission's report said. "This appears to have been a key causal factor of the blowout."
Fred Bartlit, the general counsel for the presidential commission, said Mr. Guide's email "further confirms the commission's finding that BP poorly managed last-minute design and procedural changes at Macondo."
BP's internal report downplayed the significance of the decisions, saying they didn't contribute to the blowout.
BP's report did cite critical mistakes in the final hours before the rig blew on April 20 that were made by the same on-board managers that Mr. Guide said in his email were at wit's end. One of them, Robert Kaluza, later expressed confusion about the procedural changes in an interview with BP investigators after the explosion, according to notes from interviews reviewed by the Journal.
Mr. Kaluza has refused to testify before federal investigators, citing his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. His lawyer declined to comment on the emails.
In his email, Mr. Guide said the situation had gotten bad enough that one engineer on the rig, Brian Morel, was considering asking for a transfer or quitting altogether. Mr. Morel couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
"Brian has called me numerous times trying to make sense of all the insanity," Mr. Guide wrote.
Mr. Sims said Mr. Guide should remind Mr. Morel that "this is a great learning opportunity" and that, "the same issues—or worse—exist anywhere else."
Write to Ben Casselman at, Russell Gold at Stephen Power at

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