By Joel Achenbach
Friday, August 20, 2010; A09
Even as they work together to kill the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil giant BP and the deep-water drilling rig company Transocean are in an increasingly bitter battle over what went wrong on April 20 to trigger America's worst oil spill.
The conflict flared Thursday when Transocean fired off a scathing letter accusing BP of hoarding information and test results related to the Deepwater Horizon blowout that killed 11 people, including nine Transocean employees. Signed by Transocean's acting co-general counsel, Steven L. Roberts, the letter says that Transocean's internal investigation of what went wrong has been hampered by BP's refusal to deliver "even the most basic information" about the event.
"[I]t appears that BP is withholding evidence in an attempt to prevent any entity other than BP from investigating the cause of the April 20th incident and the resulting spill," the letter states, and it demands a long list of technical documents and lab tests.
BP's associate general counsel, James Neath, responded late Thursday by blasting the Roberts letter as "nothing more than a publicity stunt evidently designed to draw attention away from Transocean's potential role in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy." Neath said BP had turned over more than 100,000 documents to Transocean, and demanded, in turn, that Transocean make the results of its own internal investigation public.
The stakes are high for both companies. They potentially are targets of a Justice Department criminal probe. Both have sent a string of witnesses before an investigatory panel jointly led by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (formerly the Minerals Management Service). A presidential commission is also looking into the blowout, and BP is expected to produce its report on the accident in the coming weeks.
Throughout these events, BP continues to lease two Transocean drilling rigs and a Transocean ship in the effort to plug and kill the well. The endgame has become more complicated. After extensive deliberations, government scientists and BP engineers have decided to remove the infamous blowout preventer atop the well -- if, that is, BP can assure the government that it can retrieve the massive contraption without creating new problems with the well that has been plugged since early this month.
The decision to remove the blowout preventer and replace it with a new one is likely to delay until after Labor Day the final bottom-kill of the well using mud and cement from a relief well, retired Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander, said Thursday.
That new well has been drilled to within a few feet laterally of BP's Macondo well, with only about 50 feet of vertical drilling still to go. But with the final termination of Macondo close at hand, government officials and BP engineers have been hedging their bets, trying to figure out ways to minimize the risk of something going wrong at the last moment with a well that already has nearly a mile of cement in its central casing.
"We are very close to putting this well away. None of us wants to make a mistake at this point," Allen said.
The primary concern has been that, in pushing more mud into the "annulus" of the well -- the narrow space between the steel casing and the rock wall of the well -- oil trapped in that space might become more highly pressurized and burst through a seal at the top of the well. That would let some oil back into the gulf, and it could potentially damage the blowout preventer, the most crucial piece of evidence for investigations into what went wrong.
Before the blowout preventer is removed, BP will finish an "ambient pressure test," which began Thursday morning. The blowout preventer and capping stack on the well have been flushed out and filled with seawater. The idea is to see if the pressure of seawater is enough to keep the well from flowing.
Next, engineers will conduct a "fishing experiment" in which they will open up the capping stack and blowout preventer and try to retrieve the drillpipe that is believed to be dangling in the well. As much as 3,500 feet of drillpipe may still be in the well, BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said Thursday.
Once that is accomplished, the capping stack and blowout preventer can be sequentially removed, and a new blowout preventer placed on the well.