Investigator Warned MMS in 2009 About Deepwater Gas Blowouts in Gulf of Mexico

Sixty-page report points to record of almost 40 deepwater blowouts, and culture of dangerous risk exposure

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A sixty-page memorandum addressed to Renee Orr, the chief of the leasing division of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), was sent in September 2009 by an environmental investigator, warning of potential disaster in offshore drilling operations and the particular dangers posed by gas hydrates.

It was written as a public comment to the federal government’s proposed rule for oil and gas leasing between 2010 and 2015 on the outer continental shelf, and offers a wide-ranging compilation and analysis, based on meticulously documented scientific, industry and government sources, of many accidents little known to the general public.

It warns of the potential for catastrophic environmental disaster in an offshore accident, highlighting many of the potential dangers that the Deepwater Horizon explosion has now put on display. It also raises concern about the ongoing and unrecognized release of vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere, a gas 20 times more powerful as a warming agent than CO2.

"The primary cause of blowouts, spills and uncontrolled releases of gases from offshore operations is drilling into methane hydrates, or through them into free gas trapped below," the report warns MMS. It cites much evidence compiled from accident investigations and other documents published by MMS itself, which is the federal agency responsible for assuring safety and environmental protection of offshore drilling operations, as well as leasing rules and royalty payments.

Between 1992 and 2006, almost 2,500 deepwater wells were drilled — more than three times as many as in the previous 20-year period. There were 39 blowouts during that period — 38 of them in the Gulf of Mexico — recorded in MMS accident investigation reports.

Most were in shallow water, short-lived and "environmental impacts were negligible," according to an MMS analysis. Because the fatality rate of these blowouts showed a decrease, the analysis was touted as pointing to an improving safety record. (See "Absence of Blowout Fatalities Encouraging in MMS OCS Study 1992-2006."

Yet the analysis revealed that problems with cementing caused most of the blowouts; and that the chances of a blowout were better than 1 in 400. These facts did not set off any alarm bells, or raise concern about the possibility that a blowout in deepwater could one day be catastrophic.

Reached by telephone, the investigator told SolveClimate that he received an automated email response from MMS to the online submission of his 60-page report, and never heard from the agency again.  

Safety Suffers During Drillng Boom

In 2000, during the heart of the unprecedented deepwater drilling boom, which began in the early 1990s, MMS published a review of gas hydrate research activities, which included this testimony from Dr. Roger Sassen of Texas A&M University — which the investigator’s report highlighted — that warns unequivocally about the dangers of a deepwater blowout:

What most concerns me real-time is that the energy industry is moving into deep water of the Gulf of Mexico where gas hydrates form instantaneously in sea-floor experiments…Surprisingly little is known about the geology (water depth distribution, geologic controls, maximum preservation depth in sediments) and geochemistry (compositions and stability realms) of natural gas hydrates in the context of energy industry activities…We simply cannot afford a major accident in the deep waters of the Gulf, and thus have a clear common objective with the MMS.

In giving presentations on natural gas hydrates to the energy industry, I found that knowledge of potential gas hydrate hazards is limited. There is the tendency within the energy industry to decrease time between discovery and production, and to use new and innovative technology, in an effort to decrease costs. At the same time, internal energy company research has been scaled back. These circumstances could potentially increase risk in a relatively unknown environment. Gas hydrate related problems have occurred in deepwater environments elsewhere, but they have
not always been widely publicized.

By the end of 2008, however, even industry insiders were starting to acknowledge that the deepwater drilling boom had grown beyond the safety capacity of the oil and gas companies to manage properly. With profits on the line, rig crews were stretched thin and staffed with less experienced operators, as this article from Drilling Contractor  acknowledged.

Large numbers of new drilling rigs are being commissioned to explore for more resources in order to meet demand. However, the problem arises that each new rig require a core of experienced personnel whose training takes longer than the time it takes to build a drilling rig. The present pool of experienced personnel is being diluted to fill vacancies on new rigs while promotions of inexperienced staff are being accelerated.

The loss of key personnel and the accelerated promotion of individuals lacking the “craft” erode the knowledge base from which a team draws heavily in order to enhance the ability to detect unstable systems. Team members with limited knowledge will encounter difficulty recognising warning signs related to system instability. They will also experience an inability to function normally if there is a rapid system failure and if a stressful overload of events occurs.

Independent Investigator

The 60-page report which opens the window on these revelations was authored by Dan Zimmerman, an independent environmental investigator of the Northcoast Ocean and River Protection Association (NORPA). He has worked with numerous groups since 1975, especially on pesticide, forestry and salmon habitat issues. The executive director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Patty Clary, told SolveClimate she has worked with Zimmerman for 14 years and called him "a brilliant researcher."

Zimmerman said that he sent his report last September to hundreds of environmental organizations and individuals, but got no response.

"It’s become a popular topic now," he said, with attorneys and environmental groups now examining his report.

Yet Zimmerman was more interested in discussing the Gulf oil spill than his report, expressing concern about the condition of the blowout preventer on the sea floor and the pipe in the bore hole. If the pipe in the bore hole has been perforated, he said, a "top kill" being planned by BP may not stop the leak. 

"My concern is that cratering has now occurred and a flow path has been established outside the well bore. If this has occurred we are in serious trouble, more than we currently think."

"If there are plumes of gas and oil rising from the sea floor around the pipeline," Zimmerman said, "that would be an indication. They have submersibles. They should be examining the area around the blowout."

His concerns seem well-founded. One of the most complete and factual chronologies of the events leading up to the BP Gulf of Mexico blowout recounts this situation five minutes before gas shot out of the drill column on the surface of the ocean.

Standpipe pressure increased and decreased twice between 21:30 and 21:42 (standpipe pressure generally reflects bottom hole pressure). This, along with a steady increase in mud pit volume, suggests that surges of gas were entering the drilling fluid from a gas column below the wellhead, and outside of the 7-inch production casing. Gas had probably channeled past the inadequate cement job near the bottom of the well and, by now, had reached the seals and pack-offs separating it from the riser at the sea floor.

Failure of a "top kill" — if it doesn’t make matters worse — would leave well control experts with only one final known option for stopping the leak in the Gulf: drilling a relief well. The idea is to reach the oil reservoir with a well drilled on a tangent to the original, and seal it closed.  But an industry publication published in 2009 indicates that drilling a relief well to 18,000 feet below the sea bed is beyond the edge of the technical capability of well control experts.

The detection tools used to locate the blowout wells have been successfully used for many years. However, there have been very few relief wells drilled deeper than 16,000 ft. A very deep intercept greater than 20,000 ft will be a challenge to any relief well team. If the deep intercept cannot be made, a shallower depth will need to be chosen. This complicates the kill operation as it will not be made close to the reservoir.

Yet even without a fail-safe option for well control in case of an accident, industry has proceeded to ever greater depths in search of oil. Deepwater boosters proudly speak of the deepest well ever drilled, which reaches more than 30,000 feet down into Earth’s crust. It sits off the coast of Texas in US waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ocean Boiling with Methane

Zimmerman devotes more than ten pages of his report to a partial listing of blowouts caused by drilling into or through methane hydrates. It is a sobering listing that includes photographs and links to disturbing videos, including one that shows a drill room on a platform at the moment a blowout occurs, and another that shows the ocean boiling with methane escaping around a drilling rig.

A longtime environmentalist, Zimmerman sometimes becomes indignant in his report:

GHG release from offshore O&G operations should be thought of as the O&G industries dirty little secret. Massive releases of methane and CO2 have been occurring from these offshore operations for over 45 years, with little concern shown by the O&G industry for the deadly impacts they have generated…

This pattern of extracting first and asking questions later has always been the method of operation for the oil, gas and coal industries. And they are often helped along by politicians and regulatory agencies.

His compilation of evidence and his meticulous listing of sources provides strong evidence for his assertion. In the wake of the Gulf oil disaster, environmentalists have called for stripping MMS of its role as regulator of safety and environmental impact, citing unavoidable conflict with its function as rulemaker of leases and collector of royalties.

During a hearing before Congress, Senator Wyden of Oregon last week told Secretary of Interior Salazar, in charge of MMS, that he now has an opportunity "to drain the environmental safety swamp at MMS.”

High Stakes for Everyone

The stakes are high for the oil and gas industry, which has long enjoyed a cozy relationship MMS, famously marked in 2008 by a sex and drug scandal. It wants to continue with business as usual.

But the stakes for exacerbating global warming are perhaps even higher. Zimmerman pulls the curtain back on the little recognized and unquantified release of large volumes of methane from the ocean floor as a result of ongoing oil and gas exploration.

He also raises the red flag on methane hydrates, whose vast deposits in the ocean sediments of the Gulf, and elsewhere, are being targeted to be the unconventional energy source of the future, with little public awareness.

Already the focus of a high-stakes international competition, methane hydrates were the focus of a bullish report presented to Congress in a briefing by the National Academy of Sciences which contained the cocky assertion that "no technical challenges have been identified as
insurmountable" in the pursuit of commercial production of methane

In the last national election, and in the ongoing debate over energy, offshore drilling has been a flash point. The public has been consumed by the question of whether to "drill, baby, drill" or not, when in fact, offshore drilling has been booming over the last two decades into ever deeper waters, with ever greater risk, and apparently — given Zimmerman’s report and the window it opens  — with nobody really watching out for the public interest. 

(Photos: MMS, NOAA) 

See also:

Did Deepwater Methane Hydrates Cause the BP Gulf Explosion?

Advocates Call On Salazar to Relinquish Interior Dept’s Oversight of Drilling Safety

Research Shows Federal Oil Leasing and Royalty Income a Raw Deal for Taxpayers

Millions of Tons of Methane Bubbling Up from Melting Arctic Seabed