For an oil industry executive and former drilling supervisor, Bob Cavnar can be pretty tough on his colleagues.
In his new book about the Deepwater Horizon accident, Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout,” he lays blame for the tragedy at the feet of not just BP and Transocean, but an attitude of complacency that he says grips all of the industry.
He digs into the details of the accident and response, hits on the history of BP, deep-water drilling and government regulation. He names names, and few come out of his analysis looking good.
Known to many as the founder of local news and views blog site The Daily Hurricane, Cavnar just took over as CEO of Luca Technologies, a Golden, Colo.-based firm that is developing technology for enhanced oil and gas production.
Cavnar took a few minutes between the new job and starting his book promotion tour to talk to me. Below are some excerpts:
In a nutshell, why do you think the accident happened?
I believe this whole incident was preventable and was really the fault of human error. The people on the rig failed to listen to the well as it became more and more dangerous.
Obviously there were design flaws. BP will take issue and say the design was fine, but I believe the well design is flawed because it had one less downhole barrier.
I quote [former Boots & Coots well control expert] Larry Flak, who says the best way to control a deepwater blowout is to not have one, because they’re so hard to control once you get gas above the BOP.
I don’t think it was necessarily one person’s fault. It was like in airplane accident where it takes at least three things to go wrong for there to be an accident, except in this case there were a whole lot more.
You don’t lay all the blame on BP, though. You put in on the Transocean rig crew as well.
[The late Transocean rig worker] Jason Anderson was doing his best but he was put in an untenable position, trying to finish a well that was not safe.
Transocean bears the responsibility for modifications to the BOP [he details those shortcomings quite well]. But on the decision to use the nitrified cement, to not circulate the well completely bottoms-up and to displace the riser with seawater before the cement job was complete: That was BP’s decision.
So you don’t believe BP’s version of events from the Bly Report, that the blowout came through the center of the well and not the annulus?
It seems real tortured to me that it came down from a production zone, up through the cement, and through two float valves. The more natural path is up the back side.
Why do you think the people on board made so many mistakes?
They were anxious to get off the well and had to move on to plug another well. They were under pressure from Houston. They were trying to rationalize their decisions that way. That doesn’t acquit [BP company men Don] Vidrine or [Robert] Kaluza. They were 20-, 30-year guys too.
But because the company VIPs were on the rig they were distracted and you had a short change of tour [a new shift came on several hours earlier as part of change in schedule] just when they started the tests. So you had a new tool pusher, driller, assistant driller.
Money and cutting costs came into consideration with well design in Houston, but not necessarily with the guys on the rig. I think they were desperate to get off that well, and were more likely to shave corners to save times. Displacing the riser early was them trying to combine steps and I think it blinded them to what the well was telling them.
The book includes details about a number of other close calls in the offshore drilling business that I think many of us haven’t heard about before. Why did you include that?
We think we’re on top of all this stuff, but the margin of error is razor thin.
One of the things I write about is because we’ve been so successful and done such marvelous things offshore in extreme conditions, we tend to get over confident and complacent.
You have a chapter about what you call the BP-government merger. Explain that.
Sometime about August, Admiral Thad Allen was asked where the idea came from for the static kill and well integrity test, and he said something like he wasn’t sure, that they all worked to closely together it could have come up around the coffee pot.
So what I did was I backed up and started listening to the rhetoric from the administration in early May. The language from [Rep. Ed] Markey, [Sec. of the Interior Ken] Salazar and President Obama got sharper and sharper until June 16, when BP came to the White House and agreed to the $20 billion escrow fund.
Instantly the rhetoric changed and softened. There were a couple of times where there was clear disagreement over some issues, but it became very much one message, with BP stepping back to the background.
Do you think the government was colluding with BP to downplay the size of the spill early on with what are now clearly ridiculously low flow estimates?
I think the government was operating on very poor information. Just after the rig sank, BP told the Coast Guard the oil had stopped flowing, but at the very moment Admiral Landry was on TV saying that BP had ROVs on the bottom of the ocean trying desperately to get the BOP shut.
Do you think the government lied about how much oil was left in the Gulf once the well was shut in?
I think NOAA did obfuscate the information. They wanted that New York Times headline that said “most of the oil is gone” and they got it, although if you ready the report itself it didn’t really say that.
You’re an industry insider but you’re tough on the industry in the book. Was it the Deepwater Horizon incident that led to this view?
It was a couple of things over the years. I’ve been in the business for 30 years. Early on in my career I was injured in a pit fire. I’ve had crewmen injured or killed.
Also in my early days I watched oil and gas operators taking fresh water reservoirs and pumping them into waterfloods and open pits. So I started to get a view on how the industry should operate more responsibly. As I’ve risen in the ranks over the years I’ve tried to act on that.
The oil and gas industry is its own worst enemy. We tend to treat the public as ignorant and think PR and “public education” campaigns are sufficient, when in fact we have lobbyists full-time fighting everything that makes the industry safer or cleaner.
I don’t think the people in the industry are bad people, but we set up an environment of opposition. We need to turn down the volume a bit. It’s easy to see why people call us “Big Oil:” because we act like it.