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Offshore drilling's high tech image at odds with wildcat ways

Just weeks before exploding in the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon's drill struck a hidden pocket of natural gas, rocking the massive rig with what drillers call a "kick."

Gas surged up the pipe, so strong operators ordered an emergency shutdown, fearing any spark might ignite the floating $560 million platform.

A close call, but not all that rare.

"Everybody took a deep breath and said, 'Now, let's get back to making a well because this rig is costing a million dollars a day,' '' said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The oil and gas industry spent years and tens of millions of dollars polishing the image of deep shelf exploration, making it sound as safe as boarding a flight to Orlando.

But the no-worries message industry regulators, executives and ad campaigns — persuasively pitched to Congress, the Obama administration and the public — contrasted sharply with work-a-day reality of deep shelf drilling.

Unlike commercial aviation or nuclear power, the offshore energy industry retains -- even takes great pride in -- the high-risk, high-reward ethic of its "wildcat'' heritage.

"The term is petroleum cowboys," said Richard Charter, a senior policy advisor for Defenders of Wildlife who has monitored offshore practices for 40 years. "It really is a sort of cultural fast forward from the Texas wildcatters. The idea is you can go out and get this black gold and beat the other guys to it. There's a kind of bravado."

That "can-do'' drive has produced impressive high-tech advances in pinpointing and extracting deposits but it hasn't eliminated daunting, dangerous challenges.

Industry engineers and scientists liken the complex job of boring a hole miles deep below the seafloor to "walking a tightrope." It's not a slogan likely to be adopted in the next American Petroleum Institute marketing campaign.

For critics, the vast dollars at stake have tempted the industry into minimizing its risks. Leasing a rig like the Horizon can cost an oil firm $600,000 a day but some of the first deep wells have proved immensely productive, producing payoffs that can easily reach into the hundreds of millions.

"We are taking risks we don't understand," said Bea, who has reviewed numerous crew accounts and internal documents about the blowout. "It's that simple."

This photo was shot from a BP supply boat off the Deepwater Horizon as it burned. The photographer is unknown.

Extreme pressures and temperatures squeeze safety margins and push not-always reliable gear to design limits.

"Kicks," which can blow out wells and damage rigs if crews don't act fast to tamp them down, are common. The deep continental shelf is a partially mapped minefield of "geohazards'' such as ancient sand deposits loaded with highly pressurized gas or formations of ice-like methane hydrate so volatile scientists dubbed it "burning snowballs."

"This is one hellaciously risky business," said Bea, who has worked more than five decades in the offshore business and been employed by both Shell Oil and BP.

The congressional panels now digging into the catastrophic April 20 blowout, which killed 11 crew members and continues spewing 5,000 barrels of crude daily in the Gulf, seem flabbergasted that an industry that had touted its high-tech prowess can't simply turned off a busted well.

"We were told that, if the unimaginable happened, we had a failsafe mechanism that would make certain there would be no harm," Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, told BP, Transocean and Halliburton executives during a subcommittee hearing this week.

The probes have already found evidence suggesting miscalculations and malfunctions -- a questionable decision to replace drilling mud with seawater before sealing the well in cement, leaky hydraulic lines that may have disabled a blowout preventer that was the primary safeguard against an uncontrolled gusher -- and the lack of any effective backup or cleanup plan.

In the same hearing, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., blasted the flailing efforts to cap the well, saying "drill, baby, drill'' boosterism had glossed over significant risks.

The Deepwater Horizon listing in the hours before it sank. (Photo courtesy Jon T. Fritz)

"Top hats, golf balls, tires, hair, nylons -- these are not the response actions of companies who are prepared for the worst-case scenario," he said. "The American people expect your companies to have a technological response to this disaster on par with the Apollo project, not Project Runway."

Appearing before a House subcommittee on Wednesday, Lamar McKay, the president of BP America, cautioned against using one incident to indict the industry. He called the massive spill "unprecedented'' in a half century of drilling that has peppered the Gulf with more than 42,000 wells. There have been thousands of spills, but none close to this one.

"We've got to learn what caused this and what to do to make sure this doesn't happen again," McKay said. "I think we will solve this, and that will allow us to be safer going forward."

Industry executives have consistently downplayed risks its own experts have detailed for years in journals, reports and at conferences. Instead, the industry launched an aggressive and successful campaign to open more of the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic ocean and other coastal zones -- a plan approved and then suspended by the Obama administration after the massive spill.

They stressed an improving safety record, the potential rewards of tapping rich oil and gas reserves vital to the country and cutting-edge technology to reduce environmental impacts, including seismic imaging that allows undersea wildcatters to create virtual four-dimensional maps of the sediment beneath the Gulf waters.

By some measures, the industry had cleaned up its act over the last two decades. In 2007, the federal Minerals Management Service reported the number of blowouts had declined to 39 from 1992-2006 from 87 during the previous 15-year period. That still meant that one in every 387 wells suffered a serious failure.

The Deepwater Horizon slips beneath the sea. Photographer unknown.

Last year, the American Petroleum Institute published a report showing that offshore oil spills had decreased dramatically over the past 40 years -- offering the historical study as evidence that more drilling posed little risk in the future, thanks to ‘‘prevention-oriented regulations and voluntary industry initiatives."

Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said the howls now to stop Gulf drilling or block further exploration are short-sided.

"Our goal has got to be zero risk in the environment," he said. "But you can't just shelve this stuff. At the end of the day, we've got to find a way to get you 25 million gallons of gas tomorrow and the next day." And that, he said, is only how much Florida guzzles.

Oil industry representatives view the wildcat ethic as a strength, crediting it for innovations that have opened a deep water frontier.

"There is some sense of, it's there and we can do it. Just like NASA says, ‘There's the moon, we can do it,' '' said Cathy Landry, a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute.

She rejected suggestions that drive came at the expense of safety or that the industry downplayed the potential hazards of deepwater drilling. "You are working with combustible materials," Landry said. "I don't think people in the industry were saying nothing can ever go wrong."

Yet for all innovations, an undercurrent of concern runs through even the cheerleading in industry outlets like Offshore magazine. The May 1 edition, apparently in print before the accident, contains three articles extolling the promise of deep water reserves but questioning if current designs are up to the work, noting how the complex geology and temperature and pressure were "closing the safe drilling window even tighter."

Brian Skeels, emerging technologies director for Houston-based FMC Technologies, wrote that the difficulties posed by ultra deep exploration would have some companies "err on the costly and conservative approaches'' or abandon drilling attempts.

"Others choose to ignore the possible hazardous conditions and forged ahead because there is no concrete answer," wrote Skeels, who did not respond to a call or email.

After the Deepwater Horizon was gone. Photographer unknown.

As far back as 1997, Offshore laid out the "catastrophic consequences'' of encountering the "drilling menace'' of pressurized sand pockets called shallow water flows: "Gone unchecked, the cost to operators can range from $100,000 squeeze jobs to total loss of the wellbore and millions of investment dollars."

The Mississippi Canyon area where the Deepwater Horizon exploded is notorious for hidden pockets called shallow water and gas flows that trigger kicks.

Methane hydrates, which Bea believes crystalized in the well and triggered the rig explosion, form commonly at the 5,000-foot depths where the Horizon was drilling. They can clog blowout preventers and pose an array of other problems.

Yet, he said, the company assessed the risks and consequences of a blowout as minimal. ‘‘The BP people thought this was a piece of cake."

Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, said federal regulators have let drillers roll the dice at the public expense for too long.

"When BP is making $93 million a day in profits, they're going to do everything possible to convince the public this activity is safe," he said. "It's pure hogwash."

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