Fire on the Horizon

The untold story of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Fire on the Horizon

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig in flames.

John Konrad vividly recalls the moment he heard there had been an explosion aboard the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, drilling on behalf of British Petroleum (BP) in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, Konrad was serving as active captain aboard drill ship Deep Ocean Ascension—one of BP’s most expensive and technologically advanced exploratory drill ships—guiding it around the Cape of Good Hope en route to the Gulf. He immediately went online to look for news about the stricken Transocean-owned Horizon, but found nothing until he visited gCaptain (a blog and networking site for maritime professionals he himself founded in 2007), and “saw a picture of the rig with flames shooting out of the derrick. That’s when it really hit me [how big the fire was],” he says.

Much has been written about BP and the subsequent environmental disaster, but relatively little media coverage has been devoted to events that took place on the Horizon that fateful April 2010 day. Konrad attributes that, in part, to the challenges of reconstructing the accident, and the media’s lack of familiarity with the “little-understood culture of offshore drilling.”  All of which explains why Konrad—a former Transocean employee—coauthored “Fire on the Horizon” (Harper), which tells “the untold story” of the Horizon, a tale that dates back to 2000, when construction got underway on the massive vessel at Hyundai Heavy Industries shipyard in Ulsan, South Korea.

In the following Failure Interview, Konrad reflects on why the Horizon catastrophe occurred, and what it might take to prevent similar incidents in the future.

What prompted you to write “Fire on the Horizon”?
I had the inside story. The chief mate of the Horizon [Dave Young] was one of my closest friends in college, and the captain [Curt Kuchta] and I rose through the ranks at Transocean together. Everyone who was on board that day wants the story told, but every time they try to [tell the story to the media] it gets misconstrued. Because they want the story told right, they were willing to talk to me.

The other reason I wrote the book is because I wanted to find out what happened. The guys on the rig, the guys in Transocean’s offices, the government officials—no one had the full story. I wanted to get all the stories and piece them together.

What does the average person not understand about offshore drilling?
How technologically complex it is. If you told me ten years ago that I’d be working on an oil rig, I would have thought you were crazy. But it’s interesting, challenging work. It takes problem solving and teamwork and leadership and that’s what attracted me. The vision most people have of an oil rig is guys lifting pipes and cranes, but now it’s mostly computer operated. There’s still a physical element but it takes a lot more than that.

It’s ironic that when the Horizon disaster occurred, four VIPs from BP and Transocean were on the rig to deliver a safety-related award.
If you ask any Transocean employee if Transocean is a safe company, they’ll go on at length about the safety meetings and procedures and the money and time spent on safety. But what they don’t do is categorize the types of safety. BP and Transocean concentrate on preventing injuries and [individual] deaths at the expense of large hazards—like fires consuming the rig, blowouts, and collisions with other ships. The Horizon award was for occupational safety. No one had lost a finger or fell off a ladder or anything of that nature. But they weren’t concentrating on the possibility of large-scale disaster.

Why wasn’t the Horizon able to weather the blowout of the well?
When you are drilling, you might hit pockets of gas that are dangerous, but you can dump heavy mud in, you have the BOP [blowout preventer], and there are other safety mechanisms in place. The problem here is that not only did the cement fail, but the BOP failed, and they didn’t have heavy mud in the column.

Just a few [four] months prior, Transocean had a very similar blowout [on the Sedco 711] in the North Sea. Everyone had gone to lifeboats, but in that case, the BOP mechanism closed.

What role does economics play in terms of the willingness to shut down a rig to do maintenance or make repairs?
The BOP is the most important piece of safety equipment. BOPs can be looked at with remote control vehicles, but in order to fully tear the valves down, look at the seals, and look at the hydraulics, it has to be up on deck. They only pull the BOP up on deck when they move between wells. And because the wells are so close together in the Gulf, it may only be on deck for a couple of days, and then it goes back down to the sea floor for between three and nine months.

So they are willing to shut the rig down for small events, but to do a two-week inspection of something that is already working, that doesn’t tend to happen.

In the book you write that it’s not the dangers you anticipate but rather the unforeseen failures that most often give birth to catastrophe.
No one expected a blowout of this nature—myself included. I often say I would never work on a production rig, where you are actually sucking the oil from the ground, processing it through the rig, and pumping it ashore. You have all of this oil passing through, and if a pipe ruptures it can inundate the rig. The worst offshore disaster ever was the Piper Alpha [July 6, 1988]—that was production. But exploration? You never see the oil. So no one expected something of this magnitude.

What are some of the lessons learned from the Horizon disaster?
One is that we have to expect the unexpected; what are the possibilities and are we ready for them? But if I had to put my finger on one thing [that led to the Horizon catastrophe] it would be the price of oil. On a deep water rig the recovery cost is about $35 a barrel; that’s how much it costs the oil majors to get a barrel out. When the price of oil was hovering around fifty or sixty dollars a barrel deep water drilling made sense, but when the price rose over a hundred dollars a barrel they realized it was a relative bargain and they put in a large number of rig orders. But no one looked at the fact that if you have twice as many rigs, who is going to manage them? Who is going to design the wells? Now we’re seeing a dilution of expertise.

We need the nation’s best and brightest working on oil rigs, and in coal mines and refineries. A lot of these less glamorous jobs are interesting, and if we can get the smartest, most motivated people to work in these industries, that would be a real step forward to preventing incidents like this in the future.

Are companies like Transocean doing anything differently in the wake of the disaster?
That depends who you talk to. The major speech right now is: Be careful out there. Take a little extra time for safety, think about the problems, but there is no real encouragement of people discussing ideas and bantering around possibilities. Basically, it’s continue as you are, but be a lot more cautious and let’s wait for the government report before we take real action.