EPIC FAIL: BP's Leadership Mess in the Gulf

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As we learn more about the events in the Gulf, we learn more about BP's failures. Not just technical failure, but managerial and leadership failure as well.  While President Obama puts together an independent commission to look into what actually happened, we can start the discussion as follows:

Subject: The whole world needs offshore oil, so it's time we gave everyone enough insight to help solve the BP/Horizon accident and make sure there are no repeats anywhere in the world.

  • The whole world needs offshore oil from areas which are not a part of OPEC, to bridge to a post-OPEC world and hold down oil prices. Some countries such as Brazil, Angola, China, Australia, India, and others will produce offshore oil no matter how the BP/Horizon accident is resolved.  We need them to have a disaster prevention and recovery tool kit to make offshore oil clean and safe.

  • It took 40 years to get over the Santa Barbara accident in 1969.  I worked for Shell at the time; in 1970, Shell had their own platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.  In 2010,  the USA government briefly considered drilling off of the Pacific coast of North America.  Whoops.  After the BP/Horizon experience, however resolved, offshore drilling is set back by N years.  N may be approaching infinity this time, unless new management and technical tools are developed.

  • BP is nearly the worst major company to lead that effort.  The current top management of BP have been playing catch up and trying to change a slipshod culture since the Texas City refinery accident.  In the real world, the Amoco component wrecked the Amoco Cadiz tanker in the Bay of Biscay long before that.  It becomes apparent that a safety culture would have: 1) not hired the Horizon rig without changes, and 2) would have established a management system and culture which made good long term decisions about safety and environmental protection.  Management should have responded to anomalous pressure readings from an exploratory well by ceasing everything out of the ordinary until the condition of the well was understood.  Murphy was the first recorded safety engineer.

  • Those of us who have tried to help BP solve this problem have learned that BP is a closed system whose communication with the outside world is in a coma, induced by their lawyers.  A whole succession of other bright people have found the same.  Those silly engineering solutions tried so far are demonstrably off target, but who is listening?

  • For the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar to announce that BP has all the smartest people included in looking for solutions is sublimely na├»ve.  Did BP offer him Kool Aid?  Why did he drink it?

  • The offshore technology community has a lot of smart people, but it becomes apparent that the best work for someone other than BP, Transocean or Halliburton.  Are they being listened to?  We get from others that there are 500 engineers and scientists from 160 companies working at the Houston war rooms of BP.  So why is BP not dispensing needed information to smart people elsewhere to work on this unprecedented problem?  Why did a Purdue professor have so much trouble getting their videos so he could assist by estimating how much oil was spewing? This is no longer "confidential information"; it now falls into the domain of public interest. Measurements show the flow from the well to be closer to 70,000 barrels each day, not 5,000 as BP has been repeating, all the while incorrectly saying the flow cannot be measured. BP has even had the audacity to say that they have not embraced better estimates because it does not matter enough.  To whom?  If you don't know how to measure the flow, how do you design a solution?
  • This circus is proof positive of a leadership crisis at BP.  Over the weekend, we learn that not only was this the first well drilled into the same formation by Horizon, but that the first well was a dud.  A shouting match broke out between BP and Transocean over how to seal this second, troublesome well with anomalous pressure readings.  Now, I am as skeptical of TV journalism as the next thinking person, but look into the eyes of one of the coolest, bravest people I have watched being interviewed and see what you think about how this accident came about.If you wish to get the facts in writing, see this.

  • The worst strategic mistake that BP has made is not being an open system to the many bright scientists and engineers who are eager to help.  There will never be a "safety culture" or an "ecofriendly culture" at BP until the very top management creates and supports it.  And that culture requires that BP embrace help where it is clearly needed.

  • Here's the most frustrating part: clowns from BP, Transocean, and Halliburton being grilled by other clowns in Congress (and a couple of very good public servants) is great theatre.  But refer back to point 1 above.  The world needs safe, clean offshore oil as a bridge.  Almost the whole world suspects that getting offshore oil cannot be clean and safe.  Everyone loses if we leave the world with that impression, which must be corrected.  At the very least, BP is part of the problem and a very much smaller part of the solution.

  • I had hoped that with 400 or 500 engineers reported to be working on the problem at BP war rooms, the flow would be drastically reduced by now.  I believe that management of the solution tool kit must be wrestled away from BP.  President Obama has begun that process by recruiting the O-Team, but they are not (yet) in charge. This team includes brains and experience from NASA ventures into space and decades of US work on atomic weapons, energy and research.  Why have these creative, skilled people waited until now to learn what they need to know about the accident and the aftermath?   Why wasn't that conveyed widely? Why was there no contingency plan? Or why is the current state being called a "contingency plan that is working"?  Why does it take a global scale disaster and an act of God/the President to bring together a team of experts to look at ways to solve this problem after the fact?

  • The world needs all offshore-interested parties to participate in one or more open collaboratives to fix the problems highlighted by the BP/Horizon accident; more importantly, the collaboratives must create a priori technology and management systems to prevent or fix the next offshore accidents, without regard to who is running the show.  Finally, these collaboratives must truly embrace anyone who can help with solutions - they must be open and transparent.
Let me leave you with a visual.  If we believe BP, they said the spill is at 5,000 barrels a day. That's 210,000 gallons per day.


A typical tank truck holds 8000 gallons, Then, BP's claim looks like this:


However, if we are to believe the worst-case scenario, it looks more like this:


It is a sad commentary on the state of our industry, when the public and the government can't trust or verify what BP is doing. 

And meanwhile, the leak still rages.  It's time to get BP off the case. This war is too important to be left to the generals.

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This page contains a single entry by Phil Townsend published on May 18, 2010 7:18 AM.

BP's Oil Leak--Solving the Methane Hydrate Clogging Problem was the previous entry in this blog.

Collecting Oil Leak Plumes with Sub Sea Tents is the next entry in this blog.

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