Did BP's Oil Rig Really Pass a Key Safety Test?

Thumbnail image for FINALCD-logobugV2.jpgMore than seven weeks after BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig caught fire and sank, causing the worst environmental disaster in US history, what exactly happened during its final hours remains murky. There is broad agreement that the platform exploded shortly after a series of safety checks--but just how many tests were done and what they revealed is the subject of intense speculation and debate. Now a lawyer for some of the survivors says he has new evidence that casts doubt on BP's claims that a key safety check was successfully performed just hours before the explosion.

Tony Buzbee, a Houston attorney with a long record of winning settlements from oil companies, is representing Halliburton service supervisor Christopher Haire, who helped perform safety tests on the rig on April 20, the day of the blowout that killed 11 workers. That afternoon, Halliburton contractors performed negative pressure testing, a routine safety check that creates a sucking effect to test for leaks in a well's cement and casings. Haire helped with two negative pressure tests, both of which indicated potential problems with the well the rig had been drilling, known as Macondo. Buzbee says that statements he's taken from Haire suggest that an alleged additional test was not actually completed. Haire was injured when the rig exploded; Buzbee says his client is "focusing on his medical treatment" and unavailable for comment.

BP has acknowledged that two negative pressure tests on the day of the accident were unsuccessful. A company official told congressional investigators last month that the tests' results may have indicated that an influx of gas was causing pressure to mount inside the wellbore. According to a briefing (PDF) given to congressional staff by Halliburton, a negative pressure test is considered successful if no material such as drilling mud, a lubricant injected into unfinished wells, comes up to the surface. However, the first negative pressure test aboard the Deepwater Horizon returned 23 barrels of drilling mud to the surface of the rig and the second test returned 15 barrels, according to public statements by an attorney for Halliburton.

Haire, who performed the two tests with the help of another rig worker, discontinued the second test at around 7 pm because the tank that held the drilling mud was full, Buzbee says. He was then told to shut a valve on the well and stand by. After about 45 minutes, Haire and a coworker began to wonder what was going on and went down to the rig floor, where the platform's drilling equipment was set up. There they found four employees of rig owner Transocean--the driller, tool pusher, and two assistant drillers. "At that point, I was instructed by the driller and the tool pusher that they had achieved a successful negative test on the rig floor," Haire told investigators from the Coast Guard and Minerals Management Service last month. (All four of the Transocean employees died in the blast.)

Yet Buzbee now tells Mother Jones that Haire (pictured below) saw no evidence that this third and final negative pressure test actually took place. As Haire had been waiting above the rig floor, his pressure gauges did not show any changes in the well--as they should have if another test had been performed. "That's why I've always said from the beginning that there never was a 'third test,'" Buzbee says. "The only information that we have about any so-called 'third test' is the word of BP." BP did not respond to a call and email seeking comment.

Buzbee and Haire's description of events is partly reflected in testimony given by Tim Probert, Halliburton's chief health, safety, and environmental officer, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 12. Probert said that negative pressure testing had continued "until Halliburton's cementing personnel were advised by the drilling contractor [Transocean] that the negative pressure test had been completed, and were placed on standby"--echoing Haire's claims of being told to wait for further instructions. Probert did not mention any additional testing taking place after that.

Presented by

Josh Harkinson

As Mother Jones' West Coast reporter, Josh keeps a close eye on natural resource issues, digital democracy, and the environment. Before joining Mother Jones as an investigative fellow in 2006, Josh spent three years as a staff writer at the Houston Press.

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