Saturday, January 21, 2017

DVD: Deepwater Horizon

Deepwater Horizon is a cinematic dramatization of the oil rig disaster that occurred on the night of April 20, 2010 in the Gulf Coast in which eleven workers were killed and seventeen injured.

The Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling an exploratory well in the Macondo Prospect, a potential oil and gas prospect in Miocene-age sediments located approximately forty-one miles offshore of Louisiana. Ironically, the prospect takes its name from the fictional town of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Drilling in the prospect was initially begun in 2009 by Transocean's Marianas semi-submersible rig but was discontinued after the rig was damaged by Hurricane Ida i the fall. In February of 2010,  Deepwater Horizon, a dynamically positioned ultra deep-water semi-submersible rig resumed drilling the prospect. It is important to remember that Deepwater Horizon was to look for oil, not pump it out of the ground. In April of 2010, with the drilling operation forty-three days behind schedule, disaster struck. What followed was a serious of human and mechanical mistakes that led to the disaster.

When an oil well is drilled a bit is used to drill through the rock. Each section drilled has casing installed to line the hole and then cement is poured to seal the space between the casing and the rock wall. This process is repeated again and again as the well is drilled deeper using smaller casing. When drilling a well, heavy mud is pumped into the well to lubricate the bit and also to carry bits of rock (called chips) to the surface. The mud also has another function. Hydrocarbons - that is oil and gas in the rock formations are under tremendous pressure thousands of feet below the earth's surface. When an opening is created as when drilling, the oil and gas will flow out of the rock to the surface unless there is a countering force.That force is provided by the static pressure of the mud which keeps the gas and oil from flowing out of the rock, up the drill pipe to the surface. If the pressure exerted by the mud is not sufficient the well will "kick" that is gas and oil will flow upwards. The hydrocarbons can also flow upwards if the well has been damaged or if "the cement placed between the casing protecting the drill string and the rock wall of the well isn't tight." In this case methane gas can flow up the drill string or outside of the cement casing and flow upwards with catastrophic results.

Deepwater Horizon
Because BP was behind schedule, drilling proceeded too quickly and the well was fractured at around 13,000 feet. The pipe had to be pulled two thousand feet back, the damaged section sealed and drilling restarted along a slightly different angle into the oil/gas bearing formation. With the drilling now finished, to secure the final section of the well, BP decided to go cheap and use a single string of casing from the wellhead to the bottom of the well. This was risky because it meant that there would be a significant chance gas would leak out of the formation. (Generally single casing is used on shallower wells on land.) Even worse, BP did not use enough centralizers or collars that ensure the pipe is in the middle of the bore hole so that when the cement is poured around it there are no gaps and therefore no risk of gas leakage. Both of the options were used to cut time and cost. BP also did not have Schlumberger run a cement bond log, deciding it wasn't needed. This test is routine on a well to test the integrity of the cement bond between the well casing and the formation. The blowout preventer (BOP) which can be used to shut down a runaway well was also damaged making it useless. Added to this was the apparent misreading of the negative pressure test which is done on a well to determine the integrity of the well. All of these factors plus many more contributed to the making of the disaster..

The movie, directed by Peter Berg,  focuses on a few people in the disaster - Transocean's Chief Electronics technician Mike Williams played by Mark Wahlberg with Kate Hudson cast as his wife Felicity, Transocean's offshore installation manager  (OIM) Jimmy ("Mr. Jimmy") Harrell (Kurt Russell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) who was a Dynamic Positioning Operator and Caleb Holloway (Dylan O'Brien) who was a drill crew floorhand. Also included were BP executives, nighttime rig supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and daytime rig operator Robert Kaluza. While the movie makes Vidrine out to be the villain in fact as indicated above, it was a smorgasbord of many failures, both human and mechanical that were involved in creating the disaster. 

While much media attention has been on the ecological disaster associated with the oil spill that followed, little focus has been on the real people who survived the disaster and the eleven rig workers who died that night. Berg wanted to create a movie about the human tragedy behind the disaster.  In an interview with the L.A. Times Berg stated: “To this day, when people think of Deepwater Horizon, they only think of an oil spill — they think of an oil spill and dead pelicans ...Obviously that oil spill was horrific,” he continued. “But the reality is 11 men died on that rig and these men were just doing their jobs and many of them worked hard trying to prevent that oil from blowing out and it was certainly not their fault. As it pertains to the families of those men who lost their lives, I want them to feel as though another side of that story was presented, so that whenever someone talks about the Deepwater Horizon or offshore oil drilling, people don’t automatically go to ‘oil spills.’ ”

To recreate the events, an 85% scale replica of the Deepwater Horizon rig was built on an abandoned lot in Louisiana and placed in a enormous water tank.The replica was made as accurately as possible and the set was one of the largest ever made for a movie. It was set on fire to mimic the real explosions and inferno of the disaster. The realism of the set made it possible to give viewers some idea of just how horrific things were on the rig during the blowout. A 2010 New York Times article written by David Barstow, David Rhode and Stephanie Saul became the main source for the development of the movie script.

From the very beginning, the movie adaptation portrays a culture of disorganization, risk taking and poor maintenance on the rig. When Mike Williams, Jimmy Harrell and Andrea Fleytas arrive on Deepwater Horizon they are astonished to learn that the Schlumberger team has been sent home without running the cement log. No one seems to know why the log was not run and they are told that the drilling is finished and they are going to cap the well.  Furthermore there are many things on the rig that do not work - the phone system is out, toilets are backed up etc. After his own brief investigation with rig staff, Mr. Jimmy decides to confront BP executives, Don Vidrine and Robert Kaluza about the cement log and while doing so, Williams reels off a list of items on the rig that don't work and are in need of repair.

The movie also portrays the complex and often difficult relationship between the various partnering companies. Mr. Jimmy and Mike Williams show considerable disdain for the BP staff who they see as interested only in saving money at the expense of rig safety. Mr. Jimmy who works for Transocean the owners of Deepwater Horizon has nothing but contempt for Vidrine. It is also apparent that many of the rig's crew respect Mr. Jimmy.

One of the best scenes in the movie occurs early on when Mike is preparing to leave for his three weeks on the rig and he has breakfast with his daughter Sydney. Sydney is working on a school project that will explain her father's job and how he "tames" the dinosaurs. The scene is both an analogy for drilling an oil well and a foreshadowing of the disaster. Using a coke can which her father shakes, Sydney explains to her father that he tames the dinosaurs by drilling for oil. Sydney rams a metal rod into her can of coke and plugs it with honey - but after she finishes her explanation, the pop explodes out of the metal tube and onto the table, mimicking a well blowout. One of the trailers released for the movie shows this scene:

For the most part the movie is a fairly accurate portrayal of the situation on the rig and the disaster that follows. Williams didn't rescue Mr. Jimmy as in the movie but both men were seriously injured, Williams was left on the rig and did jump over ten stories into the ocean, the survivors did say the Lord's Prayer on the deck of the Damon B. Bankston and the rig was entirely engulfed in flames. The are minor inaccuracies such as when Mike Williams is given a dinosaur tooth by one of the rig staff for his daughter. Retrieval of a large fossil would not be possible because it would be destroyed by the drill bit. There is some dramatic license taken in the movie such as showing bubbles of methane gas escaping from the seabed around the borehole, suggesting to the viewing audience that the well is about to "blow".

Nevertheless Deepwater Horizon is a great action movie, filled with many tense moments and good acting. If anything the movie will help viewers understand the tragedy, learn a bit about the oil industry and remember the human story that seems mostly forgotten. Media focused on the 210 million gallons of oil that leaked into the Gulf of Mexico but Deepwater Horizon helps us to remember the eleven men who died that night.

For those interested in a more detailed description of exactly what is believed to have happened to cause the Deepwater Horizon blowout this video explains the details. Popular Mechanics also has a great article "Special Report: Why the BP Oil Rig Blowout Happened" that is worth reading.

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