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BP Macondo & Cognitive Dissonance

As someone with a fair bit of oilfield experience, I was quite frustrated with the media’s reporting of 2010 Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The journalists just had no clue nor seemed interested in interviewing people who knew what really went wrong. But as time passed, the experts were finally gathered to given their findings in Chapter 4 of the Oil Spill Commission Report. As well, there was some very lively discussion on a petroleum engineering discussion group, which eventually formed my reasons for this disaster.

Like many mechanical disasters, BP Macondo was a series of errors that culminated into the accident. The most egregious of these errors occurred after BP had drilled into the very productive oil formation and prepared it for future production. As per government regulations, the company conducted a pressure test on the casing to ensure the steel and cement were capable of keeping the oil out of the wellbore. The test yielded an increase in wellbore pressure, an almost sure sign that oil was entering the wellbore. This should have effected well known procedures for pushing the oil back into the formation, called “killing the well.” Instead, the wellsite supervisors, supported by their engineering team on shore, interpreted this pressure change as “The Bladder Effect,” which was not only false, but technically unsound. So more volatile oil was allowed to flow into the broken wellbore, which eventually could not be controlled.

This particular misinterpretation was not rocket science! Many experienced drilling rig workers would have made the right call and killed the well. Why then did these wellsite supervisors and their onshore drilling engineers — with so much experience, training, and education behind them — fail to react properly to this Drilling 101 situation? Why didn’t they do the right thing?

The answer lies in the other mechanical mistakes made by the oil company. The root causes behind these mistakes were to cut costs, cut costs, and cut costs. There was such a great cost-cutting culture behind BP Macondo that more than a few well established drilling engineering principles were sacrificed in the design and operations. As each transgression seemed to bear no immediate consequence, it became easier to abandon more well establshed drilling engineering principles — to cut more costs.

So when the pressure test proved the casing failure, the next logical step of killing the well would have meant several million dollars in extra expenses. If the bladder effect conclusion had actually been right, no extra costs would have incurred. So the cost-cutting culture simply selected the less costly interpretation, subtly assuming that an oil well blowout was impossible at BP Macondo.

According to BP’s chain-of-command for the Macondo well, the two wellsite supervisors were responsible for approving the pressure test and being alert for signs of a blowout. For this reason, they are currently on trial for manslaughter and negligence. Whether they are found guilty or not is irrelevant. Had they been making the right calls throughout the project (which would have incurred more costs), they would have been replaced with more compliant cost-cutting wellsite supervisors.

Who won’t be on trial are the highly paid executives who set up this culture of cognitive dissonance, a culture that warps the thinking of otherwise reasonably sound professionals.

If there is to be a change in regulations, it should be directed at identifying and shutting down cultures of cognitive dissonance. BP Macondo had ample signs beforehand that it was heading for a wreck long before the wreck occurred. If only the regulators were watching the technical signs to show the psychological problems behind the people drilling this well . . . .

Publish on 2013

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