Gulf oil spill: Rep. Henry Waxman focuses on Halliburton cementing job

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Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) started his inquiry into the Deepwater Horizon oil spill Wednesday with sharp words for BP, the well owner; Transocean, which owned the drilling rig; and Halliburton, which cemented the well:

‘This catastrophe appears to have been caused by a calamitous series of equipment and operational failures. If the largest oil and oil services companies in the world had been more careful, 11 lives might have been saved and our coastlines protected.’

But Waxman immediately focused on Halliburton’s cementing job as the first in a complex chain of events that ended with an explosion and fire April 20 that left 11 men missing and presumed dead and started a spill of 5,000 barrels per day that now threatens the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

“Before, during or after the cement job, an undetected influx of hydrocarbons entered the wellbore,” Waxman said. ‘What this means is that there was a breach somewhere in well integrity that allowed methane gas and possibly other hydrocarbons to enter the well.’


Waxman said the well did not pass a crucial pressure test below the blowout preventer, and that a high pressure reading inside the well likely meant there was an incursion of natural gas.

‘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.’

But Waxman said attorneys for BP have found that another pressure test hours later was satisfactory, and that work on sealing the well for later production was continued.

‘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 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. What we do know is that shortly before 10 p.m. – just two hours after well operations apparently resumed – gas surged from the well up the riser and the rig exploded in a fireball.’

Cementing problems have been an early focus of inquiries into the Deepwater Horizon disaster. A UC Berkeley scientist told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that BP documents suggest cement could have been contaminated by ‘hydrates,’ or methane and related gases that are liquid under pressure.

These hydrates likely gasified and escaped from the cement, entered the well core and expanded as they rose to the rig, where they ignited in the huge fireball that doomed the Deepwater Horizon, according to Robert Bea, who directs UC Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management.

Testimony is continuing before the Oversight and Investigation subcommittee, part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

-- Geoff Mohan, Richard Simon