Deepwater Horizon explosion

Deepwater Horizon explosion
Deepwater Horizon explosion
Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010.jpg
Anchor handling tugs and platform supply vessels combat the fire on the Deepwater Horizon while the U.S. Coast Guard searches for missing crew.
Date April 20, 2010 (2010-04-20)
Time 22:00 UTC-6
Location Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana, United States 28°44′12.01″N 88°23′13.78″W / 28.7366694°N 88.3871611°W / 28.7366694; -88.3871611Coordinates: 28°44′12.01″N 88°23′13.78″W / 28.7366694°N 88.3871611°W / 28.7366694; -88.3871611[1]
Killed: 11 (assumed dead)
Injured: 16

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion refers to the April 20, 2010 explosion and subsequent fire on the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (MODU), which was owned and operated by Transocean and drilling for BP in the Macondo Prospect oil field about 40 miles (60 km) southeast of the Louisiana coast. The explosion killed 11 workers and injured 16 others; another 99 people survived without serious physical injury. It caused the Deepwater Horizon to burn and sink, and started a massive offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; this environmental disaster is now considered the second largest in U.S. history, behind the Dust Bowl.[2][3][4]



Deepwater Horizon

site of the explosion
site of the explosion
DW Horizon
Location of the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010

The Deepwater Horizon was a floating semi-submersible drilling unit — a fifth-generation, ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, column-stabilized drilling rig owned by Transocean and built in Korea. The platform was 396 feet (121 m) long and 256 feet (78 m) wide and could operate in waters up to 8,000 feet (2,400 m) deep, to a maximum drill depth of 30,000 feet (9,100 m).[5] Press releases from Transocean state the platform had historically been used for deeper wells, including the deepest underwater gas and oil well in history at 35,055 feet (10,685 m) in 2009.[6] The $560 million platform was built by Hyundai Heavy Industries in South Korea and completed in 2001.[7] It was owned by Transocean, operated under the Marshalese flag of convenience, and was under lease to BP until September 2013.[8] At the time of the explosion, the Deepwater Horizon was on Mississippi Canyon Block 252, referred to as the Macondo Prospect, in the United States sector of the Gulf of Mexico, about 41 miles (66 km) off the Louisiana coast.[9][10][11] In March 2008, the mineral rights to drill for oil on the Macondo Prospect were purchased by BP at the Minerals Management Service's lease sale.[12] The platform commenced drilling in February 2010 at a water depth of approximately 5,000 feet (1,500 m).[13] At the time of the explosion the rig was drilling an exploratory well.[14] The planned well was to be drilled to 18,360 feet (5,600 m) below sea level, and was to be plugged and suspended for subsequent completion as a subsea producer.[13] Production casing was being run and cemented at the time of the accident. Once the cementing was complete, it was due to be tested for integrity and a cement plug set to temporarily abandon the well for later completion as a subsea producer.[15]

Transocean safety record

The rig owner, Transocean, had a "strong overall" safety record with no major incidents for 7 years.[16] However an analysts' review "painted a more equivocal picture"[16] with Transocean rigs being disproportionately responsible for safety related incidents in the Gulf[16] and industry surveys reporting concerns over falling quality and performance.[16] In the 3 years 2005 to 2007 Transocean was the owner of 30% of oilrigs active in the Gulf and 33% of incidents that triggered an MMS investigation were on Transocean rigs, but in the 3 years from 2008 to 15 February 2010 it owned 42% of rigs but was the owner for nearly 3/4 (73%) of incidents.[16] Industry surveys saw this as an effect of its November 2007 merger with rival GlobalSantaFe.[16] Transocean "has had problems" with both cement seals (2005) and blowout preventers (2006), which are the suspected cause of the Deepwater Horizon loss,[16] although Transocean states cementing is a third party task and it has "a strong maintenance program to keep blowout preventers working".[16] According to the Wall Street Journal online:

"In 2008 and 2009, the surveys ranked Transocean last among deep-water drillers for "job quality" and second to last in 'overall satisfaction'. For three years before the merger, Transocean was the leader or near the top in both measures. Transocean ranked first in 2008 and 2009 in a category that gauges its in-house safety and environmental policies"[16]
"There were few indications of any trouble with the Deepwater Horizon before the explosion. The rig won an award from the MMS for its 2008 safety record, and on the day of the disaster, BP and Transocean managers were on board to celebrate seven years without a lost-time accident. Toby Odone, a BP spokesman, said rigs hired by BP have had better safety records than the industry average for six years running, according to MMS statistics that measure the number of citations per inspection. BP has been a finalist for a national safety award from the MMS for the past two years. Mr. Odone wouldn't comment on BP's relationship with Transocean after the Gulf disaster but said BP continues to use Transocean rigs."[16]

Pre-explosion risks and precautions

Deepwater Horizon drilling rig prior to the incident.

In February 2009, BP filed a 52 page exploration and environmental impact plan for the Macondo well with the Minerals Management Service (MMS), an arm of the United States Department of the Interior that oversees offshore drilling. The plan stated that it was "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities".[17] In the event an accident did take place the plan stated that due to the well being 48 miles (77 km) from shore and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts would be expected.[17] The Department of the Interior exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact study after concluding that a massive oil spill was unlikely.[18][19] In addition, following a loosening of regulations in 2008, BP was not required to file a detailed blowout plan.[20]

The BP wellhead had been fitted with a blowout preventer (BOP), but it was not fitted with remote-control or acoustically activated triggers for use in case of an emergency requiring a platform to be evacuated. It did have a dead man's switch designed to automatically cut the pipe and seal the well if communication from the platform is lost, but it was unknown whether the switch was activated.[21] Documents discussed during congressional hearings June 17, 2010 indicated that Transocean previously made modifications to the BOP for the Macondo site which increased the risk of BOP failure, in spite of warnings from their contractor to that effect. Regulators in both Norway and Brazil generally require acoustically activated triggers on all offshore platforms, but when the Minerals Management Service considered requiring the remote device, a report commissioned by the agency as well as drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness.[21] In 2003, the agency determined that the device would not be required because drilling rigs had other back-up systems to cut off a well.[21][22]

Pre-explosion problems and warnings

There had been previous spills and fires on the Deepwater Horizon; the US Coast Guard had issued pollution citations 18 times between 2000 and 2010, and had investigated 16 fires and other incidents. The previous fires, spills, and incidents were not considered unusual for a Gulf platform and have not been connected to the April, 2010 explosion and spill.[23] The Deepwater Horizon did, however, have other serious incidents, including one in 2008 in which 77 people were evacuated from the platform when it listed and began to sink after a section of pipe was accidentally removed from the platform's ballast system.[24] By April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon well operation was already running five weeks late.[25] Internal BP documents show that BP engineers had concerns as early as 2009 that the metal casing BP wanted to use might collapse under high pressure.[26] In March 2010, the rig experienced problems that included drilling mud falling into the undersea oil formation, sudden gas releases, a pipe falling into the well, and at least three occasions of the blowout preventer leaking fluid.[26] The rig's mechanic stated that the well had problems for months and that the drill repeatedly kicked due to high gas pressure providing resistance.[25] A confidential survey commissioned by Transocean weeks before the explosion states that workers were concerned about safety practices and feared reprisals if they reported mistakes or other problems.[27] On the day the rig exploded, 79 of the 126 people on the rig were Transocean employees.[27]

According to a report by 60 Minutes, the blowout preventer was damaged in a previously unreported accident in late March 2010.[28][29] The American Bureau of Shipping last inspected the rig's failed blowout preventer in 2005.[30] According to Transocean, workers had been performing standard routines and had no indication of any problems prior to the explosion.[31] Preliminary findings from BP’s internal investigation released by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on May 25, 2010 indicated several serious warning signs in the hours just prior to the explosion.[32][33] Equipment readings indicated gas bubbling into the well, which could signal an impending blowout.[26] The heavy drilling mud in the pipes initially held down the gas of the leaking well.[34] A BP official onboard the rig directed the crew to replace the drilling mud, which is used to keep the well's pressure down, with lighter seawater even though the rig's chief driller protested.[25] According to a number of rig workers, it was understood that workers could get fired for raising safety concerns that might delay drilling.[25]

On March 10, 2010, a BP executive e-mailed the Minerals Management Service that there was a stuck pipe and well control situation at the drilling site, and that BP would have to plugback the well.[35] A draft of a BP memo in April 2010 warned that the cementing of the casing was unlikely to be successful.[26] Halliburton has said that it had finished cementing 20 hours before the fire, but had not yet set the final cement plug.[23][36] A special nitrogen-foamed cement was used which is more difficult to handle than standard cement.[34]

A House Energy and Commerce Committee statement in June 2010 noted that in a number of cases leading up to the explosion, BP appears to have chosen riskier procedures to save time or money, sometimes against the advice of its staff or contractors.[37]

On July 22, Sky News reported that in a survey commissioned by Transocean workers on Deepwater Horizon raised concerns "about poor equipment reliability, which they believed was a result of drilling priorities taking precedence over maintenance."[38] The survey, carried out in March 2010, "less than half of the workers interviewed said they felt they could report actions leading to a potentially "risky" situation without any fear of reprisal ... many workers entered fake data to try to circumvent the system. As a result, the company's perception of safety on the rig was distorted, the report concluded."[38]

On July 23, 2010 The New York Times reported that crew members had appeared before a federal panel of investigators, saying that power failures, computer crashes and emergency equipment leaks had occurred within a few weeks of the explosion.[39]

Explosion and fire

Supply boats continued to battle the fire, viewed from a Coast Guard helicopter

The fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon reportedly started at 9:56 p.m. CDT on April 20, 2010.[25] At the time, there were 126 crew on board: seven employees of BP, 79 of Transocean, as well as employees of various other companies involved in the operation of the rig, including Anadarko, Halliburton and M-I Swaco.[40]

Transocean employees on the vessel state that the lights flickered, followed by two strong vibrations. Transocean employee Jim Ingram stated that "on the second [thud], we knew something was wrong."[41] After the explosion, Transocean executive Adrian Rose stated that abnormal pressure had accumulated inside the marine riser and as it came up it "expanded rapidly and ignited."[15] According to interviews with platform workers conducted during BP's internal investigation, a bubble of methane gas escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before exploding.[42] Rose said the event was basically a blowout.[15] Survivors described the incident as a sudden explosion which gave them less than five minutes to escape as the alarm went off.[43]

The explosion was followed by a fire that engulfed the platform. After burning for more than a day, Deepwater Horizon sank on April 22, 2010.[44] The Coast Guard stated to CNN on April 22, 2010 that they received word of the sinking at approximately 10:21 am.[45]

BP subsequently produced a report that suggests that the ignition source for the explosion and subsequent fire was as a result of the released hydrocarbons being ingested into the air intakes of the diesel generators, and engulfing the deck area where the exhaust outlets for the main generators were emitting hot exhaust gas. Had the engines been fitted with automatic combustion inlet shutdown valves, Pyroban kits, or executive gas detection systems that shutdown generator room HVAC systems automatically, the diesel engine ignition source could have been mitigated by breaking the fire triangle.[46]

However, whilst these precautionary techniques are common throughout the North Sea, Asia Pacific, India, West Africa and parts of Australia, the operators in the GOM region continue to adopt the bare minimum of precaution[citation needed] without breaking local compliance laws laid down by MMS or Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and the associated inspectorates such as ABS who will only recognise electrical ignition hazards in line with the recommendations made in API 500/ NFPA 500 / and NEC 500.

Casualties and rescue efforts

A helicopter crew medevac survivors from Deepwater Horizon after an explosion and fire caused the crew of the vessel to evacuate.


According to officials, 126 individuals were on board, of whom 79 were Transocean employees, six were from BP, and 41 were contracted; of these, 115 individuals were evacuated.[31] Most of the workers evacuated the rig and took diesel-powered fiberglass lifeboats to the M/V Damon B Bankston, a workboat that BP had hired to service the rig.[47][48] Seventeen others were then evacuated from the workboat by helicopter.[31] Most survivors were brought to Port Fourchon for a medical check-up and to meet their families.[49] Although 94 workers were taken to shore with no major injuries, four were transported to another vessel, and 17 were sent to trauma centers in Mobile, Alabama and Marrero, Louisiana.[31] Most were soon released.[31][50][51] When the blowout occurred, 4 BP and Transocean executives were on board the platform for a tour of the rig, maintenance planning, annual goals review, a "Drops" safety campaign, and to congratulate the senior staff of the rig for 7 years of operations without a lost time incident (MMS reports show a lost time accident occurred 2008-03-06 on a service vessel at a lease being worked by the Deepwater Horizon, in preparation for a crane operation under control of the Deepwater Horizon);[52] they were injured but survived.[42] Lawyers for some survivors of the blast claim that their clients were kept in boats and on another rig for 15 hours or more before being brought to shore and when they did get to shore, "they were zipped into private buses, there was security there, there was no press, no lawyers allowed, nothing, no family members."[53] They were then driven to a hotel under escort, secluded at the hotel for hours, questioned by company consultants and investigators and then given a form to sign before being released.[53] These claims are denied by Transocean.[54]


Initial reports indicated that between 12 to 15 workers were missing;[55] reports soon narrowed the number of missing to nine crew members on the platform floor and two engineers.[42] The United States Coast Guard immediately launched a massive rescue operation involving two Coast Guard cutters, four helicopters, and a rescue plane.[56][57] Two of the cutters continued searching through the night. By the morning of April 22, the Coast Guard had surveyed nearly 1,940 square miles (5,000 km2).[47] On April 23, the Coast Guard called off the search for the 11 missing persons, concluding that "reasonable expectations of survival" had passed.[51][58] Officials concluded that the missing workers may have been near the blast and unable to escape the sudden explosion.[59] Jason C. Anderson, 35, Aaron Dale Burkeen, 37, Donald Clark, 49, Stephen Ray Curtis, 39, Roy Wyatt Kemp, 27, Karl D. Kleppinger Jr., 38, Gordon L. Jones, Keith Blair Manuel, 56, Dewey A. Revette, 48, Shane M. Roshto, 22, and Adam Weise, 24, died that day.[60]

Discovery of oil spill

A remotely operated underwater vehicle attempting to turn on the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer

On the morning of April 22, 2010 (two days after the blowout accident), CNN quoted Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashley Butler as saying that "oil was leaking from the rig at the rate of about 8,000 barrels (340,000 US gallons; 1,300,000 litres) of crude per day."[61] That afternoon, as a large oil slick spread, Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael O'Berry used the same figure. Two remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) were sent down to attempt to cap the well, but had been unsuccessful.[45] Butler warned of a leak of up to 700,000 US gallons (17,000 bbl) of diesel fuel, and BP Vice President David Rainey termed the incident as being a potential "major spill."[45]

On April 22, 2010, BP announced that it was deploying a remotely operated underwater vehicle to the site to assess whether oil was flowing from the well.[62] Other reports indicated that BP was using more than one remotely operated underwater vehicle and that the purpose was to attempt to plug the well pipe.[63] On April 23, 2010, a remotely operated underwater vehicle reportedly found no oil leaking from the sunken rig and no oil flowing from the well.[64] Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry expressed cautious optimism of zero environmental impact, stating that no oil was emanating from either the wellhead or the broken pipes and that oil spilled from the explosion and sinking was being contained.[65][66][67][68] The following day, April 24, 2010, Landry announced that a damaged wellhead was indeed leaking oil into the Gulf and described it as "a very serious spill".[69]

Investigation into explosion

At an April 30, 2010 press conference, BP said that it did not know the cause of the explosion.[70] Transocean chief executive Steven Newman described the cause as "a sudden, catastrophic failure of the cement, the casing or both."[34] President Barack Obama authorized SWAT (Surface Water Assessment Team of the Minerals Management Service, part of U.S. Dept. of Interior) teams to investigate 29 oil rigs in the Gulf in an effort to determine the cause of the disaster.[71] On May 11, 2010, Department of the Interior released a press release, announcing that the inspection of deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico found no major violations.[72] There are ongoing investigations to determine the root causes of the disaster.[73]

In June, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce said BP should have tested cement at the well, which would have cost $128,000 and taken 8–12 hours.

On September 8, 2010, BP released a 193-page report on its web site. The report says BP employees and those of Transocean did not correctly interpret a pressure test, and both companies neglected ominous signs such as a pipe called a riser losing fluid. It also says that while BP did not listen to recommendations by Halliburton for more centralizers, the lack of centralizers probably did not affect the cement. BP also said the crew should have redirected the flow of flammable gases. The blowout preventer, removed on September 4, had not reached a NASA facility in time for it to be part of the report. Transocean, responding to the report, blamed "BP's fatally flawed well design."[74]

On November 8, 2010, the inquiry by the Oil Spill Commission revealed its findings that BP had not sacrificed safety in attempts to make money, but that some decisions had increased risks on the rig.[75] However, the panel said a day later that there had been "a rush to completion" on the well, criticizing poor management decisions. "There was not a culture of safety on that rig," co-chair Bill Reilly said.[76] One of the decisions met with tough questions was that BP refuted the findings of advanced modelling software that had ascertained over three times as many centralizers were needed on the rig. It also decided not to rerun the software when it stuck with only six centralizers, and ignored or misread warnings from other key tests, the panel revealed.[77]

A slide briefly appeared on the Oil Spill Commission’s website which enumerated eight “risky” and “unnecessary” steps that BP was deemed to have taken. The New York Times newspaper has published a screenshot of the slide here.[78][79]

Disposition of financial obligation

On April 21, 2011, BP filed $40bn worth of lawsuits against rig owner Transocean, cementer Halliburton and blowout-preventer manufacturer Cameron. The oil firm alleged that failed safety systems and irresponsible behaviour of contractors had led to the explosion, including claims that Halliburton "negligently" failed to use cement-modelling software OptiCem properly to analyze safe well requirements. Part of the modelling concern was about the number of stabilising devices, known as centralisers, the well required: 21 called-for v. 6 used.[80]

In May, 2011, MOEX Offshore, which owned a 10% stake in the well through a subsidiary and which in turn itself was majority-owned by Mitsui & Co., agreed to pay US$1.07 billion to settle BP claims against it over the accident. Some analysts had thought BP would realize a larger settlement from MOEX but there was also relief to have a first step toward resolving the multiple claims. BP’s most recent estimate at the time was that the spill would cost $41.3 billion. Anadarko Petroleum held a 25% stake in the Macondo well and was an immediate focus of attention with MOEX's agreement. Also the Department of Justice was still at the time investigating whether BP was "grossly negligent" in the spill. Such a determination could lead to a "much larger liability under the Clean Water Act,” a financial analyst said. With MOEX agreeing to share in the financial burden—though "the agreement isn’t an admission of liability by either party" -- the possibility of such a ruling by DOJ seemed to some to be perhaps lessened.[81]

In October 2011, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation agreed to pay BP $4 billion and the two companies settled all claims between them.[82] Anadarko yielded its 25% stake in Mississippi Canyon Block 252 (Macondo) to BP in the agreement and BP will indemnify Anadarko for damage claims arising under the U.S. Oil Pollution Act, among other costs.[83]

See also


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