Hours before the fatal accident that sank the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, workers for the rig’s owner quarreled with BP officials who wanted to finish the drilling job despite problems, a mechanic told a Coast Guard committee in Louisiana on Wednesday.
Douglas Brown, the rig’s chief mechanic, testified that three officials for rig owner Transocean Ltd. balked at the desire of a BP “company man” to remove drilling mud from the pipe connecting the rig with the well.
“There was a slight argument [that] took place.… The [BP] company man was saying, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ ” said Brown, who could not identify the BP official.
After the midmorning meeting, Brown said, Transocean worker Jimmy Harrell grumbled, “Well, I guess that’s what we have those ‘pinchers’ for” — apparently referring to the shear rams on the blowout preventer on the seafloor.
The shear rams are emergency devices used when all other means of controlling gushing oil have failed. Brown’s account suggests that Harrell thought BP was taking a grave risk by replacing the drilling mud with lighter seawater.
Brown’s revelations came as frustrated lawmakers in Washington called on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to take tougher action against the agency that was supposed to police the drilling, the Minerals Management Service.
Salazar has proposed breaking up the agency. In a letter, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) told Salazar to start from scratch and “clean out that house.” Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) called on the Interior secretary to review all offshore drilling projects to ensure disaster plans are sufficient.
Plans to allow Shell Oil Co. to drill offshore in the Arctic were expected to be shelved Thursday.
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, stepped up attacks on the Obama administration, which defended its work on the spill. Against this backdrop of political tussling, BP embarked on a procedure called a “top kill,” its latest attempt to stanch oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico since the explosion April 20 on the Deepwater Horizon Eleven rig workers were killed.
Of all the day’s events, however, it was Brown’s testimony in a suburban New Orleans hearing room that provided the most drama. Brown was testifying as part of an investigation by the Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service.
Previous testimony and documents suggest the cement and pipes encasing the inside of the well beneath the seafloor abruptly gave in, creating a blowout that sent gas and oil rocketing upward. A memo released Tuesday by two members of Congress said that BP had conceded to lawmakers that “cement work that was supposed to hold back hydrocarbons failed.”
Brown, who suffered a head injury in the blowout, testified that workers were under pressure to finish and seal the exploratory well. Other testimony in the hearing suggested the project might have been as much as $22 million over budget.
“It was passed around … that this well was taking too long and [BP was] in a hurry to complete it so they could move on to the next,” he testified.
The night of the blowout, Brown said, he was filling out a nightly log in the rig’s engine control room. Just before 9:45 p.m., Brown heard an “extremely loud air-leak sound” that didn’t sound normal.
Gas alarms blared. Someone over the radio announced a “well-control situation.”
Engines No. 3 and 6, the only ones in operation, appeared to be speeding up. “I heard them revving up higher and higher and higher,” Brown said. Soon afterward, electrical power went out.
Safety devices designed to shut down runaway engines failed, and he had no authority or instructions to shut them down manually.
That action could have been crucial, as flammable and odorless gas began spreading through the rig from the blown-out well. Engine 3 was closest to the air intake system.
“If I would have shut down those engines, it could have stopped [them] as an ignition source,” Brown said.
Experts had earlier suggested that a tendril of gas sucked into the rig’s engines caused the fire.
Brown confirmed that the first explosion came from the port side, near engine No. 3, and it was strong enough to hurl him against a control panel and into a tangle of cable trays and wires. A second explosion shook the control room, Brown said, and the ceiling fell on him.
“I started hearing people screaming and calling for help, that they were hurt, they needed to get out of here,” Brown said.
Brown and another man, who was bleeding profusely from his forehead, crawled out of the rubble. Brown hurried to the back deck, where he saw the oil derrick in flames. He described a scene of chaos: People screamed; they cried. He heard later that some had jumped overboard.
Brown headed toward a lifeboat, where a man taking a head count was nearly frozen in shock. “This was a man who’s known me for nine years and he could not even remember my name,” Brown said.
The order was given to abandon ship. Later, Brown was airlifted for treatment of his injuries.
Carl Smith, an expert witness from Diamond Offshore Drilling, testified that there was sometimes tension between the “company men” and the rig crew on offshore rigs. Diamond Offshore was not involved in the Deepwater Horizon operation.
Oil companies holding leases hire various contractors, including rig owners, to carry out exploration work under their direction. The crew of a single rig might include workers and managers from each of these contractors, as well as officials from the lease holding company — in this case, BP.
Smith said the arrangement sometimes leads to companies pressing crews to speed things up, and that could compromise safety.
“Some [company men] have become outright adversaries, but they’re the people paying the bills…. But I have to say, most of them are safety-conscious,” he told the committee.
Smith also raised questions about BP’s apparent rush to finish the job. He and other experts interviewed have emphasized that the crew’s priority should have been to adequately monitor the well. Monitoring wells involves watching fluid spew from outtake systems: If more comes out than expected, it could mean there is leak down in the hole.
Smith said, however, that he believed the heart of the accident remained an “engineering problem” that allowed the initial failure deep in the well.
“This is a below-the-mud-line, down-the-well engineering problem,” he said.
Times staff writer Jill Leovy in Los Angeles contributed to this report.