UPDATED: FAQs on Deepwater Drilling, Gulf of Mexico spill

Frequently Asked Questions: Deepwater Drilling and Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

What caused the Macondo Well blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

The causes of the blowout are still being investigated. It is likely that multiple failures of processes, systems and equipment resulted in this catastrophic event. Exhaustive reviews are being undertaken by the joint US Coast Guard, Minerals Management Service, Marine Board of Inquiry and the President’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. [See also BP’s response.]

In addition, industry task forces have been formed to review many specific aspects of offshore operations. Although we don’t know all the factors that caused the accident and it is tempting to rush to judgment, we do know that this industry takes safety and environmental stewardship very seriously. When we do learn how this occurred, the offshore industry will work together to ensure that this type of event never happens again anywhere in the world.

What is SPE doing to help in this crisis?

SPE members will have an active role to play in addressing technical issues resulting from the accident and in sharing any new best practices that will emerge from the ongoing investigations.

SPE is not involved as a society in the emergency response to stop the well and mitigate the spill, although many SPE members are part of the emergency response team. Two SPE board members are among the 15 contributors and reviewers of information contained in the US Department of Interior report relating to the accident (INCREASED SAFETY MEASURES FOR ENERGY DEVELOPMENT ON THE OUTER CONTINENTAL SHELF, May 27, 2010).

There are several hundred qualified people from over 50 companies who are working with BP and the government agencies to resolve the situation.

SPE’s mission is sharing technical knowledge, and we help the industry to learn from incidents like this. SPE serves an important role in providing a forum for discussions on changes needed in equipment, operating practices, training and other recommendations on how to prevent or reduce the impact of future oil spills.

JUST ADDED: What special efforts will SPE make to address technical issues relating to the blowout?

SPE President Behrooz Fattahi has appointed a task force of five SPE Board members to look into the Macondo blowout’s effects on the industry and create a preliminary plan outlining SPE’s strategy and role in the post-BP Spill age.  Ken Arnold, SPE Vice President of Finance and National Academy of Engineering member, chairs the Task Force. Other members are  Ford Brett, director of Drilling and Completions; Paul Jones, director of Production, Facilities and Operations; Kamel Bennaceur, Management and Information; and Tom Knode, director of Health, Safety, Security, Environment, and Social Responsibility.

SPE will be creating several focused and accelerated efforts to ensure that we move in as timely manner as possible.   It’s a bit early to announce exact event agendas, dates, and program details, but we will plan several workshops focused on disseminating the results of industry work groups, forums to address the issues they raise, and public education in deepwater operations in general. These efforts will be in addition to the normal activities that will occur in the normal course of SPE business – panel sessions at conferences, papers on particular technical issues, discussions on TIGs, articles in publications, and all of the other many technical resources that SPE provides.

The task force welcomes any suggestions for an SPE response to this incident.  Please email to spillresponse@spemail.org.

How safe is offshore drilling?

A wide range of safety statistics show a strong record of operating safely offshore. More than 50,000 wells have been drilled in the US Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), including 4,000 in more than 1,000 feet of water.

The industry has been using floating rigs with subsea blowout preventers since the mid-1960s.
The last major incident resulting in oil coming ashore from a blowout in the US OCS occurred 41 years ago, in 1969.  From 1970 until April 2010, a total of 1,800 barrels of oil spilled due to blowouts. All measurements of safety have shown a steady level of improvement since modern Minerals Management Service regulations came into effect in 1970.

The safety record in the Gulf of Mexico for offshore workers is much better than that of the average worker in the US, and the amount of oil spilled is significantly less than that of commercial shipping or petroleum tankers.

Over the past 45 years, 17.5 billion barrels of crude oil and condensate have been produced in US federal offshore waters, while 532,000 barrels have been spilled, meaning 30.3 barrels have spilled per 1 million barrels produced.

How big is this spill?

The Macondo blowout is the largest offshore oil spill in US history.  It is not the largest spill in world history, nor the largest spill in US history.

  • The largest spill in world history was likely during the 1991 gulf war, when the Iraqi army caused between 5.5 and 11 million barrels to be released.
  • The largest spill in US history was onshore in Kern, California, when 9 million barrels was spilled onshore in 1910 and 1911.
  • The largest spill to date in the Gulf of Mexico was the 1979-1980 Ixtoc well blow out in Mexican waters. That well released between 3.3 and 3.5 million barrels.

How the Macondo well will end up comparing with these historic spills is not known at this time.  Nobody knows for certain how much oil has spilled thus far and it is not clear when the relief wells being drilled will be able to stop the flow.

Currently, much of the flow from the well is being captured so that it does not enter the ocean, and additional capacity to collect the oil is being brought online with another vessel.  However, IF the well were to spill in the range of 10,000 to 50,000 barrels per day from 20 April thru 20 August, it would release some 1.2 to 6.1 million barrels.  Of course, we’ll have much better estimates in the near future.

It is also possible to compare the Macondo spill with what is released under normal circumstances.  The National Research Council 2003 report, “Oil in the Seas III” estimates that each year about 900,000 barrels of oil are released into the Gulf of Mexico from natural seeps, oil that leaks out through cracks in the rock and sediment below the ocean floor. Another 200,000 barrels of oil are released from non-oil production related human activities (petroleum products used on land that wash into the water, fuel leaks from recreational boats, oil spills from ships, and other sources).

Why is it taking so long to stop the well?

There are considerable engineering challenges in working in 5,000 feet of water, in the dark, using robotic vehicles. The water at that depth is about 40oF, and the water pressure is enough to crush a submarine. There is a flow of high pressure oil and gas to contend with and extremely high reservoir pressures, which make controlling the flow difficult.

There are many unknowns, including the condition of the damaged well. The containment systems that BP is using have never before been deployed at these depths or under these conditions. Drilling the two relief wells is the best approach for permanently stopping the flow, but that takes time.

Why wasn’t the oil industry better prepared to handle a blowout in the deepwater?

The Deepwater Horizon accident is unprecedented, and a comprehensive study of methods for a more rapid and effective response to a deepwater blowout must be undertaken. Already, the industry has come together, with all of the major companies’ staffs and others working side by side with BP’s staff. The offshore industry will learn from this incident and make changes in operating practices, training and equipment to ensure that we are better prepared to handle a subsea flow from a failed blowout preventer and riser.

However, it is impossible to anticipate the specific circumstances which may surround such a failure.  Any prior preparation will have to be modified to fit these circumstances.

Why is deepwater offshore drilling necessary?

In 2009, production from the US OCS accounted for 31 percent of total domestic oil production and 11 percent of total domestic, marketed natural gas production.  Deepwater development is a key component of the US’s energy supply, with 80 percent of US OCS offshore oil production and 45 percent of US OCS natural gas production in water depths greater than 1,000 feet.

The deepwater GOM supplied approximately 25 percent of the US’s domestic oil and 14 percent of its domestic gas production in 2009. The 20 most prolific producing blocks in the GOM are located in deepwater.

While drilling at depths of 5,000 feet or more was almost unheard-of 20 years ago, about 6 percent of world oil production now comes from deepwater wells, according to research from IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associations (CERA) on “The Role of Deepwater Production in Global Oil Supply.” Offshore oil is expected to make up some 40 percent of world production at the end of this decade.

Globally, 14,000 deepwater wells have been drilled. In 2008, the total amount of oil and natural gas discovered in deep water globally exceeded the volume found onshore and in shallow water combined, according to CERA.

What changes are needed to keep this from happening again?

Safety can be increased quickly with the implementation of safety recommendations made by the US Department of Interior, including verifying compliance with existing regulations and a National Safety Alert, recertification of all BOP equipment, and new casing and cement design requirements. Additional safety requirements have been proposed for implementation within one year, including taking a fresh look at how to deal with a deepwater blowout.

Other changes may be recommended after the accident investigation is completed, and the root causes of the blowout are determined. SPE will provide a forum for discussion on what changes are needed in both equipment and operating practices.

The US Department of Interior has proposed a moratorium on drilling of almost all wells in greater than 500 feet of water.  What are some of the safety or technical issues that impact this decision?

The moratorium would apply to all drilling in greater than 500 feet of water except for gas injection wells, water injection wells, water disposal wells and workovers.

On the one hand, a moratorium provides time for DOI to ensure new procedures are in place to make operations safer.   DOI organized a group of expert reviewers and contributors who agreed to a list of recommendations to make drilling safer.  Some of these recommendations take time to study and adopt into regulations to assure compliance.  In some cases the time frames may be as long as 6 months and even longer in one or two cases.

On the other hand, a drilling moratorium can itself create additional safety risks.  A moratorium can increase risk by:

  1. Forcing existing drilling operations to stop as soon as possible without finishing the drilling of wells.  Discontinuous operations can increase risk.
  2. It is possible that the best rigs could leave the GOM first and come back last, creating a negative impact on the overall quality of the fleet.
  3. Ceasing operations for six months and longer could lead to a loss of experienced drilling staff.  Staff experience is a key factor in safe operations.
  4. More crude oil would have to be imported by tanker and the risk of spills during tanker transport is greater than from drilling.

Download a PDF version of Frequently Asked Questions: Deepwater Drilling and Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill.

30 thoughts on “UPDATED: FAQs on Deepwater Drilling, Gulf of Mexico spill”

  1. I’m surprised at the SPE’s responses above. I learned nothing. Learned more by reviewing the June 14, 2010 letter from the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the Unites States addressed to Mr. Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO. These are allegations but are documented and loaded with possible carelessness and negligence.

  2. FAQ 7 (why is deep water drilling necessary) The list of facts about how many wells have been drilled in deep water and how much production comes from them does not actually answer this question. The FAQ posed is a highly debatable question, not one that can be answered with facts. I would argue deep water drilling is not absolutely necessary. If it were banned the earth would not stop spinning on its axis. The world would adapt to higher energy prices. That would not be pleasant for most people, but you only have to turn on the evening news to see that the world has not yet become a place that has found it necessary to make life pleasant for everyone!!!
    A better ‘FAQ’ would be ‘Why is deep water drilling done?’ This could be answered with facts such as – on one hand high consumer demand for hydrocarbon energy, despite high prices; on the other hand limited choices for independent oil companies to generate profits; plus, of course, MMS decisions to permit it.
    Limitations on independent oil companies ability to generate profits from other options include – bans on Arctic drilling, high government take in many parts of the world, most of the (e.g. shallow, onshore, high productivity) easy and cheap hydrocarbons in most parts of the world having already been developed. What the human race is left with is either low margin because it’s expensive to do (like deep water) or produces slowly (like oil sands and tight gas) or low margin because the government take is high (like the Middle East). The oil companies only go where permitted by governments, and they go there only to the extent mandated by market forces.

  3. FAQ 1 – surely BP (and maybe Transocean) are also undertaking ‘exhaustive reviews’? Or maybe your text should be modified to say ‘exhaustive independent reviews’.

  4. Many of these responses are a bit too US-focused for my liking, particularly ‘how safe is offshore drilling’ and ‘what changes are needed to keep this from happening again’. The safety of offshore drilling should be reported globally. So should the efforts that are required to improve safety. We are ‘SPE International’, after all.

  5. Response 3 is a fair comment, but SPE does not have the resources to dig into the detail as US Coast Guard, Minerals Management Service, Marine Board of Inquiry and the President’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling do. Perhaps SPE could post prominent links on this page to these organisations’ websites for people who want more detail?

  6. I believe SPE has been too passive on the Macondo blowout. Without naming any company, or passing judgment on the operations in the Macondo well, SPE should have published by now general guidelines for safe drilling in offshore environments. It didn’t have to delve into the specifics of the Macondo well, but the general principals of safe drilling are well known. Forums or workshops on this issue can follow.

  7. It seems to me the official SPE position is in too much “lock step” with the established BP and US gov. oversite officials “official” “it’s not my fault”, “I’m doing the best I can”, and the “over 80,000 outside ideas for disaster mitigation submitterd to the official site, with none better than what we are already doing”, story line. I feel we are doing ourselves (the SPE) an injustice.

  8. 7. If the list of Red Flags that was listed in earlier email publications was even half correct, then it is pretty obvious that the real cause was a combination of stupid decisions that were made. Regardless of whether the BOP functioned properly or not, this could have been avoided had BP followed more conservative operations. i.e. installing the recommended number of centralizers, circulating the well bore with 1-1.5 annular volumes followed by cement, installing a casing seal cap at the surface of the well, starting circulating the mud out of the well wieh water even after evidence that the well was not stable, recovering more fluid back than pumped into a supposedly closed system. etc. You can plan and handle a lot of contingencies, but you can’t plan and prevent stupidity. I believe the dominant responsibility lies with the Drilling Manager. The Company man on the Rig is the Boss of the Rig, but I have to believe that he was in full communication with his Drilling Manager. I don’t think an accident like this would happen with any other company and believe that it is not only unfair, but a complete waste of time and loss of jobs for many in the industry as well as all the onshore support workers in all facets of the economy. It is unfair to punish all the other companies because of the stupid decisions that were made on this rig.

  9. The DOE has released enough infrmation for a separate independent analysis by trained SPE drilling engineers to confirm the obvious. The design BP had for the well was acceptable. The opening between the liner wsa needed due to the higher temperature of the reservoir and to avoid collapsing the troduction casing as the mud in the outer annulus expands due to geothermal heating. It is apparent from reviewing all the text from the MMS/USCG testimony on May 26,27,28 and the files released by the US House Energy and Commerce committee, and watching the ROV video that there is a a very highly probabiity that the key failure was nothing more than a failure of the cement, cement shoe and the formation of a micro-annulus of the interior of the production casing nitrogen foam cement. The formtion of a micro-annulus is possible if the cement was in a plastic pre-set state and the prodcution casing contracted and lengthened due to axial growth during the two negative pressure tests. The question I have not heard anyone answer was did the engineers that were responsible for the cement job communicate to BPs engineers that the curing time for the foam cement was 48 hours not 24 hours as one would normally expect. Was this identified on the risk register for this procedure?

    BP has the responsibility as lease operator for the oil spill cleanup. However, they may not be entirely at fault for the event. All most be willing to hold judgement until the facts are all made public.

    It is important that if this was the main cause of the failure of the well’s containment that it be documented so that in the future others understand the importance of fully communicating issues which may cause such a serious outcome.

  10. I think that SPE could do some ‘splainin’ for the general public as to why there were no technology solutions on standby for this sort of problem. It appears to most folks that all of the engineers were scrambling to jerry-rig some sort of device to capture the oil at the last minute, because no one had every taken the time (and money) to figure out what might need to be done if such a low risk/high impact situation were to occur. I think reasonable people understand that accidents can happen out on the edge of the frontier. What people don’t understand is why the industry seemed to be so entirely unprepared for a worst case scenario. If the industry had collectively spent a few hundred million dollars to research and build and test a device to capture the oil in such a situation … without being required to … even if it didn’t work any better than what we have now … the public would be much more forgiving.

  11. I commend the SPE board for attempting to post an official response to this crisis. However, I would like to see the SPE (as a Proffesional body) go further by providing early lessons learnt that other operators can start implimenting immediatelty. There are enough technical facts known about the events that took place on the Deepwater horizon that we do not have to wait for a full investigation that may take several months to conclude – for fear of litigation perhaps. We do not need to apportion blame here – just the facts of what happened and what should have happened to prevent or mitigate against such a crisis.

  12. Not very useful. The question why this happened is not answered at all. Since the answer is most likely that BP did a bad job, avoiding a clear position leaves a bad aftertaste.

  13. I think the SPE need contribute the experts ideas all over the world to deal with this crisis. Everybody has this duty.
    7 July 2010

  14. Just as in Apollo 13, the instinctive reaction is to find someone to blame. Conveniently the operating company is perceived as non-US, and, worse, the CEO has been totally incompetent at media-handling. The ridiculous fact is that his reputation inside BP is one of the strictist emphasis on safety – after all he had inherited a legacy of quite a few bad accidents. Several years ago I remember, as a visitor, being severely told off as I walked up the stairs of a BP building without holding the handrail. My son, who has logged wells all over the world with Baker, tells me that of all the operators, BP was by far the most stringent on every detail of safety. Yet the CEO abysmally failed to convey this impression. Presumably his lawyers have been drumming in all the things NOT to say and no-one has told him what he SHOULD say. We have all heard the nasty rumours of what elementary operations may have been done or not done but we must keep an open mind. Meanwhile the following statistic is pertinent : 11 people killed in the BP rig accident, resulting in four presidential visits, a $1.6+ billion clean-up and the establishment of a $20 billion compensation fund in just 2 months. Compared with the American Union Carbide Bhopal accident with 15,000 people killed, resulting in 0 presidential visits, no clean up, and only $470 million (not billion) compensation after 25 years. (source Private Eye)

  15. The human factor is unfortunately not addressed in this post and should be investigated. When the supervisor and superintendant are under pressure becasue of the costs involved and delayed already incurred on a project. When money saving is through time saving, things can change quickly.
    Yes, we are praised on our safety record, but it is a negative result that is praised (NO accident), but we are still much better praised on our impact on the bottom line (money saved is positive).

    The decision making process, involving a small number of people, all under pressure, with limited (by definition) experience, may have cost the lives of 11 good guys plus an environmental disaster.

  16. After reading the letter from Congress to Tony Hayward that outlined what they thought to be facts about this incident, several things struck me. 1) There were several emails that, at the time they were written, probably seemed innocuous and are now “smoking guns”. 2) Those emails were written by guys like you and me with families and jobs. They are just trying to do the best they can under less than optimum conditions (pressures of limited time, money, working on the edge of technology). They are not bad guys or cavalier about safety. They may have made bad choices but they were not trying to kill 11 people and cause this spill. These guys are your and my neighbors, cubicle-mates, etc.

    Even without knowing the facts around this incident, the engineers and managers who read this note should think about the choices that they make daily as they do their jobs and consider how the following might apply to them.

    Incidents such as this one are usually prevented by a number of controls/barriers, the circumvention of any ONE of which would likely NOT result in an incident. But the likelihood of an incident increases as more barriers are circumvented. If it turns out that this incident is the result of a series of choices to ignore best practices (controls), any one of which is inconsequential but in sum were catastrophic, we will likely find that this is not the first time that these persons chose to ignore one of these best practices. We may find that these individuals were previously rewarded for their decision to set aside a control by getting the job done faster, easier or cheaper and nothing bad happened. They may have even received an attaboy or bonus from the boss who probably did not even know about the choice to ignore the control. The individuals may have thought they were pretty smart because nothing bad happened but they failed to appreciate the fact that bad did not happen because all of the other controls were still in place. It has been said that OSHA rules are written in the blood of those who died or were injured learning that the rules are necessary. The same might be true about many companies’ policies, procedures, best practices, industry standards, etc.

    You may be smug that you would never have made choices like these guys. Really? Have you never broken the speed limit when driving? Oh, but that is different. Really? Why do you speed when driving? Because you have frequently been rewarded with the sense that you have reached your destination faster and rarely experienced the negative consequence of getting a speeding ticket or having a wreck and killing someone else.

    By the way, 40,000 people die each year in the U.S. in car accidents. Where is the outrage for that?

  17. SPE needs to avoid stepping onto API’s toes wrt setting standards. That said, our industry has historically done a poor job in public relations. One might have thought that would’ve been API’s role but I view them as doing more for downstream lately than upstream. SPE has identified reaching into the schools as an important way to develop future petrotechs with the side benefit of improving public relations. Unfortunately, this is pretty much only in oil-producing areas who are already pre-disposed to supporting our industry (sorta like preaching to the choir).

    There might be value in integrating EHS more into the various TIG’s, ATC’s, etc rather than making EHS something that just the safety guys own. I can envision some discussions around decision-making (a previous post touched on this) and risk management. Is zero risk possible? desireable?

  18. I am a 40 year SPE member. I would appreciate it if you would not respond publicly to such a poorly planned and executed drilling plan if all you can say is “these things happen”. BP management has done irreparable harm to the industry by their acts and omissions and nobody, especially the SPE, should be making excuses for them.

  19. I did not learn anything from this. The questions and answers are as generic as politicians would entertain. Can we get anything like:total depth, reservoir pressure, gas oil ratio, whether well was tested and what were the results, completion diagram information. Get us anything specific. Or is the SPE hiding behind the excuse that investigations are under way. After 75 days something should be available that would not put the blame on any party including outright sabotage.
    I am totally frustrated not being able to explain anything to any one.

  20. I have been wondering from the start why BP can’t get coil tubing inside the well to circulate mud at a deeper depth and then cement it. Can someone provide this answer? Thanks.


  22. Were there hydrate layers in the near surface formations that disociated during cementing either by the exothermic heat of setting cement or gas displaced/ channeling from earlier discociation of natural gas hydrates from other operations releasing gas into the annulus ?

    Did BP use software or other means to monitor natural gas hydrates present and the effect of variation of temperature and pressure on their stability ?

  23. SPE could be more proactive on the incident. Quicker response from a team of SPE experts with solutions should make difference because it is not just one company’s issue, it definitely harm the reputation of the industry.
    The questions reminding are how open we are in responding to the terrible accident. Where should we able to do better as SPE?

    I suggest SPE form a forum in ACTE to discuss the spill in all possible aspects.

  24. I agree with comment #20, it would be nice to have all the information that is known about this reservoir, but in the end BP is probalby too busy trying to save itself from the pack of ravenous attorneys that are hot on their trail. This is a little like watching the poor deer as it is chased by the pack of lions on NAT GEO, the end is sadly predictable.

  25. I am disappointed by all of this. As professionals we should be waiting to hear the outcome of the in depth investigations and reviews which will take all relevant facts into account. We should not be offering mere speculation about the engineering decisions that were made until we have all the facts. Our fellow professionals made those decisions and are probably more qualified than most SPE members to have made them. For those who watched the congressional hearings it was obvious that it was more about politics than engineering and for us engineers to be drawn into these political stances does our profession and our colleagues a disservice.
    This FAQ is more than readily dealt with on the API sites and its public response. The SPE should be promoting how it assists engineers to obtain and maintain the competencies that are needed to carry out drilling and production operations in these new challenging environments, as well as disseminating the appropriate current knowledge.
    I would submit is not the SPE’s remit, as a body, to pass judgment on what may or may not have occurred.

  26. US Congress is crying out for independent, credible, expert advice which will help them assess whether this was a one-off which can be prevented in future, or something likely to happen again. I realise that SPE does not see it as its role to provide this kind of advice but which other organisation has the objectivity, authority, credibility and drilling experts which could do it?

    For example, without even commenting directly on the case, SPE could provide answers to some of the questions Congress posed to Tony Hayward and did not get answers to – are 5 centralisers much less safe than 21, would an acoustic test of the cement made much difference, is a long pipe safer than a liner, should a BOP be relied upon as a last line of defence, is it possible to improve safety by spending more.

    I was also surprised that both Tony Hayward and Congress thought it was reasonable that engineers should not put costs in front of safety. Surely every engineer in every industry finds the right balance between safety, performance and cost, which implies cutting costs as far as possible while keeping an acceptable safety margin. So surely every engineer puts costs in front of safety, the question is how close to the boundary they go. This is something SPE could explain.

    Comment 9 above is worthy of further investigation surely, particularly the suggestion that the foam cement wasn’t given the right amount of time to cure – I would like SPE to reach a conclusion about whether this is a credible possibility for what might have occured?

  27. – 11 people gave their lives. It could have been any one of us. I think we can all agree that this was both an accident and a tragedy, but we need to focus on Pro-Active recovery for the safety and well-being of every person in the Industry.

  28. Comment #28 has posed good questions, but if SPE expressed opinion on these questions, it would be like passing judgment on culpability, which SPE should avoid at this stage. What surprised me most about the Congress’ June 14 letter to Tony Hayward is that it said nothing about negative pressure tests. The decision to displace the mud in the riser with sea water when the well was still “alive” was, I believe, a fatal mistake. If anything, this was “the mother of short cuts.”

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