TODAY IS THE TWO-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEEPWATER HORIZON DISASTER IN THE GULF OF MEXICO
The following is an excerpt from Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster by Abrahm Lustgarten.
The burst of gas came from so deep within the bowels of the earth it may as well have come from another world. Thirteen thousand feet beneath the ocean’s silty floor and the earth’s crust and another five thousand feet underwater—a total depth farther than fourteen Empire State buildings stacked atop one another—hydrocarbons in the form of hot fluid saturated with dissolved methane seeped through the reinforced walls of a new oil well.
The well, an exploratory venture drilled by BP and called Macondo, was a three-mile-long tube of cement and steel that had been burrowed into the million-and-a-half-year-old rock in the weeks before. It was one of the industry’s most important new efforts to find oil in the deep waters off the southern coast of the United States, and, while not the deepest, the Macondo was pushing the limits of drilling technology and risk.
This particular well had been a cursed project from the start. Miles above, where the sun skipped along the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico, the Macondo project’s 126 oil workers had battled for weeks to control wild kicks of gas and to adapt to a series of setbacks doled out by this complicated and unpredictable well. Under stress and guided by conflicting mandates to drill quickly, drill safely, and drill cheaply, the workers had often made the wrong decisions. Now the Macondo was preparing to issue them one last challenge.
Inside the well, the gas, squeezed out of the earth by the natural pressure of the compressed rock and shoved upward by its own buoyancy, shot skyward at a pace that would bring it to the surface of the gulf in a matter of minutes. As it rose it expanded rapidly, the volume increasing the higher it got in the well, until the steel pipe and casing that channeled it upward could barely contain its explosive force.
On the ocean floor, the kick—as such a geologic burp is called in the oil industry—shot through the top of the well at the seafloor and continued upward through the mile-deep water in the long hose of steel called a riser pipe that connected the well to the surface. There, it slammed into the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, a thirty-story structure with a footprint the size of an average Walmart Supercenter floating in the Gulf of Mexico. With a burst like a canon, pent-up pressure from the oil and gas exploded from the twenty-one-inch pipe, which rose up out of the dark water. Bolts sheared off and valves were forced open. Drilling mud that had filled the well to cool the drill bit and balance the well pressure spewed across the deck of the rig, rushing against doors and spilling across stairways. With a roaring hiss, a cloud of natural gas began to envelop the rig.
On the drilling floor, the Deepwater’s driller on duty, Dewey Revette, had been monitoring the well readings and watching for a kick, but he hadn’t seen the signs. When the blowout came, Revette, a driller named Stephen Curtis, and the rig’s toolpusher, or drilling supervisor, Jason Anderson, scrambled to control the burst of gas. Anderson, cool-headed, had spent nine years working on the Deepwater Horizon and knew what to do. First, he diverted the spurting mud into a gas separator, thinking it would help capture the explosive materials from the messy mud. Then he triggered one of the emergency valved on the rig’s blowout preventer, a three-hundred-ton piece of machinery lying on the gulf’s floor meant to seal off the well in the case of a violent kick. But it was too late.
Two flights below, on the Deepwater Horizon’s second deck, Mike Williams manned the rig’s electronics shop, next to the engine room. A few feet away, diesel turbines generated the platform’s power and spun the drill bits miles inside the earth. Suddenly, Williams heard a deafening whine as the revolutions of the engines increased. But the danger—an envelope of gas that ballooned from the top of the riser pipe on the drilling floor above—was invisible. Neither Williams nor anyone else on the rig except the small group that had scrambled to drill deck had been told the Macondo was blowing out.
The rig had an extensive network of sensors that were supposed to detect a combustible cloud of gas before it could reach the engines and the control room and issue a warning. Those alarms were meant to trigger a series of closing valves designed to keep the gas from burning up in the engines. But the sensors didn’t react, and the valves never shut. The gas saturated the air, turning the rig’s engines’ normal cooling and ventilation intake into a source of gaseous fuel. The motors sucked the fumes out of the air, screaming higher and faster, their pistons whipping back and forth furiously. Another critical safety backup, the blowout preventer that Anderson had already tried to trigger in order to cut off the well, also failed, meaning the gas cloud on the rig would only get bigger. By the time Williams realized what was unfolding, there was little he could do to change it. He ran toward a fortified steel exit door, but as he reached it, one of the engines exploded. The six-foot-tall plate of metal blew off its hinges, striking him midstride. Dazed and bleeding, he slowly picked himself up, only to be slammed back down again by a devastating second blast.
On the deck above Williams, the Deepwater Horizon’s derrick was instantly engulfed in flames. The men on the drilling floor, including Jason Anderson, were killed quickly, but dozen of others were crushed or twisted or slashed by flying debris and were desperately crawling out of their own horrific emergencies, trying not to be entombed in an industrial grave.
Williams stumbled out toward a set of steel steps only to find that the walkway, which would have taken him up to the main deck, was missing. The engines were gone; the whole back of the rig was gone. Wiping away blood that blocked his vision, Williams sought another way. He heard a plea for help and stumbled over the body of an injured colleague. Above them a wall of black smoke drifted up from raging, seventy-five-foot flames. Williams couldn’t carry the man. All he could do was try to save himself.
A short time later, desperate to escape the searing heat and giant cherry-balls of fire, Williams leapt off the railings into the black night, tumbling ninety feet into the roiling, burning, oil-streaked water of the Gulf of Mexico.
ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN is a reporter for ProPublica and a former writer for Fortune. He covers energy and environmental topics, including natural gas, renewable energy, water resources, and energy policy. He lives in San Francisco, California. Follow him on Twitter: @AbrahmL.