Sheila McNulty Transocean, Halliburton should have been able to stop Macondo if unsafe

Testimony this week in the US Coast Guard and Bureau for Ocean Energy Management investigation has often been tedious and repetitive.

Lawyers, representing more than a dozen clients, are asking the same questions, leading to those overseeing the proceedings to jump in repeatedly, trying to speed things up. But these are top lawyers, used to getting their way, and so the investigators relent, and the testimony drones on. On Tuesday it went over 10 hours.

That said, some nuggets have cropped up. So for those who can withstand the testimony, making it through the day with frequent trips to the back of the room for the hot coffee on offer, the hearing is worth attending. For those who cannot be there in person, it can be watched online.

One of the interesting issues being pounded home by various lawyers is that any of the companies involved in the drilling operation could have stopped the Macondo well operation at any time if they felt something was wrong. Indeed, BP, Transocean and Halliburton all have policies permitting any staff to stop work on projects if they feel they are unsafe.

Daun Winslow, Transocean performance manager, said had Transocean’s staff “recognized something was unsafe”, it would have stopped the operation without seeking permission from BP, the operator or its staff, known as the “company man”:

They don’t need the company man’s approval to stop the job.

Indeed, he said, the top man on the rig had given him the ‘thumb’s up’ just hours before the well blew. And he had no indication, Mr Winslow said, that anything was amiss, until the explosion that killed 11 people and injured 17.

The hearings have revealed that Halliburton cementer Nathaniel Chaisson sent an e-mail to Jesse Gagliano, Halliburton’s technical advisor, on the day of the explosion indicating that cementing of the well had been completed and “it went well”.

Mr Galiano also testified to a stop-work policy within his company:

If we deem the job unsafe, anybody can stop this job.

Mr Gagliano has been made famous in the review of the accident because he raised the issue of centralisers with BP on April 15. He recommended 21 and BP went with 6. This was an issue Bart Stupak, chairman of the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations, and Henry Waxman, chairman of the House committee on energy and commerce, raised in June. They singled out BP’s apparent failure to use enough centralisers, as per Mr Gagliano’s advice, to prevent channelling during the cement process in alleging BP took decisions aimed at cutting costs and speeding work at its Gulf of Mexico oil well that increased the risk of a blow-out. These are accusations BP has said will be addressed in the ongoing investigations.

Lawyers pressed Mr Gagliano why he had not stopped the operation, or even raised the centralizer issue in the morning meeting with those on the rig the day it exploded. He said, “channeling does not equal blowout”. He had been concerned the use of fewer centralizers would mean Halliburton had to do remediation work on the well. He brushed off the decision by BP to not follow his advice, noting the UK oil company had disregarded his recommendations many times in the past.

That said, both Transocean and Halliburton employees have testified that BP did not respond to requests for information at various times in the process of drilling the Macondo well. Mr Gagliano said he had asked BP to confirm talk by Halliburton representatives that the number of centralisers being used was far fewer than he recommended and never heard back. On Monday, Paul Johnson, a Transocean rig manager, said he had asked BP for some reports he never received.

This is a point BP has not yet been able to respond to in the investigation. But the company told FT Energy Source:

While a few have been critical of the speed at which the BP well team shared information, the fact remains that Halliburton and Transocean personnel received the key information they needed to perform safe and reliable operations.

That may very well have been the case. But with all the information coming to light after the accident, it is difficult to be critical of those involved for not stopping the well from being drilled the way it was, regardless of who they work for, when questions remain about who knew what when. And so the investigation must go on and on and on…

I had to leave at 7.30pm, almost 12 hours after the process began Tuesday morning, and the testimony was still in full flow.