Here’s a posting from a gCaptain forum that gives some interesting background on the evolution of offshore drilling in the Gulf and the decline of engineering culture in the industry. The author is a Chief Engineer who has served on many rigs, including the Deepwater Horizon, and is giving his thoughts as prompted by our book. Reprinted with permission.
On page 11 (top) you speak about the dangers of complex systems operating safely in one environment being moved to a new environment without adequate “re-thinking”. Agree with you on that point. Perhaps this is more a a nit being picked but while you can certainly plainly see two different environments between land based drilling and offshore as you write in this section, I would say another line that was crossed was after the mid-70’s.
Some really good engineering was done to get to floaters and then the first generation of DP vessels. I have a built in bias towards SEDCO but that place had an engineering culture at the highest levels. The success of the 135’s and 700 series semis not to mention the drill ships 445, 471 and 472 were some remarkable vessels. More importantly than their features SEDCO nearly always responded to unanticipated events with swift, engineering problem solving. Yes they were pioneers but they were engineering it as they went, not faking it to make it.
Seems to me somewhere about the late 70’s (drilling capabilities of water depths to 2000 to 3000 feet of water) the engineering facts were changing and instead of “re-thinking” it at that time they just started plugging new/bigger numbers into old formulas and hoping for the best or assuming it would work.
Somewhat related, on page 183 you discuss the balance of safety culture with engineering culture and I would suggest this analysis should not be restricted to BP but the drilling contractors themselves as well. From the glory days of having SEDCO and say Earl & Wright and various equipment makers engineers be very real presences in the operating of DP floaters/ships there was steady decline in in-house engineering talent and then even the willingness to involve outside engineering. Perhaps complacency derived from relatively good safety records or the management trends towards financialization (who needs to know what you’re talking about, just get an MBA). I think the loss of engineering culture was also masked by the endless mergers each of which made it easier to ignore the basic fact that offshore drilling is an engineering heavy human endeavor. And made it easier to think only in terms of drilling KPI’s or ROI’s or safety systems divorced from operations.
Still I am not (completely) one of those “in the gold days” guys. Nothing, even the past is perfect, to wit. Your account of the Macondo well failure sent me back to the 1979 Ixtoc (summary here) blowout. Fragile formation, loss of circulation, BOP failure. I am not sure of the relationship between SEDCO and PEMEX at the time but wonder about the competency of that operator as well.
Then again the more things change… here is a purely anecdotal account of a well control situation from 1985. The write up is from 2010 and the author seems like he was trying to make a point about what might be wrong with the Macondo well (eerie that it was also a Mississippi Canyon lease). Putting aside the hydrates angle, if true it does show a more conservative, step by step approach to the problem. Was Exxon under the same pressures as BP? Have no idea but seems the combination of Exxon engineers and SEDCO worked the problem successfully in that case (even though it was after the mid-70’s!)