email a friend iconprinter friendly iconGulf Oil Spill
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The Minerals Management Service routinely downplayed such concerns. A 2007 agency study found that from 1992 to 2006, only 39 blowouts occurred during the drilling of more than 15,000 oil and gas wells in the Gulf. Few of them released much oil; only one resulted in a death. Most of the blowouts were stopped within a week, typically by pumping the wells full of heavy drilling mud or by shutting them down mechanically and diverting the gas bubble that had produced the dangerous "kick" in the first place.

Though blowouts were relatively rare, the MMS report did find a significant increase in the number associated with cementing, the process of pumping cement around the steel well casing (which surrounds the drill pipe) to fill the space between it and the wall of the borehole. In retrospect, that note of caution was ominous.

Some deepwater wells go in relatively easy. The Macondo well did not. BP hired Transocean, a Switzerland-based company, to drill the well. Transocean's first drill rig was knocked out of commission by Hurricane Ida after just a month. The Deepwater Horizon began its ill-fated effort in February 2010 and ran into problems almost from the start. In early March the drill pipe got stuck in the borehole, as did a tool sent down to find the stuck section; the drillers had to back out and drill around the obstruction. A BP email later released by Congress mentioned that the drillers were having "well-control" problems. Another email, from a consultant, stated, "We have flipped design parameters around to the point that I got nervous." A week before the explosion, a BP drilling engineer wrote, "This has been [a] nightmare well."

By April 20 the Deepwater Horizon was six weeks behind schedule, according to MMS documents, and the delay was costing BP more than half a million dollars a day. BP had chosen to drill the fastest possible way—using a well design known as a "long string" because it places strings of casing pipe between the oil reservoir and the wellhead. A long string generally has two barriers between the oil and the blowout preventer on the seafloor: a cement plug at the bottom of the well, and a metal seal, known as a lockdown sleeve, placed right at the wellhead. The lockdown sleeve had not been installed when the Macondo well blew out.

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