The “Deepwater Horizon” Scene That Should Be Required Viewing for Engineers

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon film was announced a few years back, I wrote a piece for the Houston Chronicle laying out my concerns that the film would be yet another sweepingly negative view of the entire oil & gas industry presented to the general public.

I was wrong.

Even if the film is not 100% accurate, it sticks to this one moment in time and place.

Furthermore, it’s completely riveting, and an absolute must-see for anyone looking to join, or already in, the oil & gas industry. Far from being negative towards oil & gas, I found the exposition leading up to the blowout to be an homage to the business and its people, and the disaster itself is horrifying, a vivid reminder of what can happen when decisions and events all line up in just the wrong way.

The film is a gut-punch and a very tough watch, yet I strongly believe this will be a valuable tool for training current and aspiring petroleum engineers.

If professors and managers don’t want to devote the entire length of the film to training, I believe one scene (only a few minutes long) in particular needs to be highlighted.

At this point in the film, the Macondo well is nearly a month and a half behind schedule, and to make up time, Sclumberger engineers were sent off the rig without performing a Cement Bond Log*.

Kurt Russell, who plays Jimmy Harrell (the highest-ranking onsite employee of Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon), demands what’s called a “negative test”, whereby the well is essentially allowed to flow against the cement; no pressure reading at the surface means that the cement is holding.

Here is where the scene becomes really valuable as an educational aid.

The test should read 0 psi, indicating control of the cement over the well. Instead, it jumps to over 1,000 psi. That should have been the end of the discussion, and everyone should have stopped operations until they could figure out why this test was not indicating 0.

Instead, John Malkovich’s character (BP company-man Don Vidrine), insists that because no fluid appears at the rig level, there can’t be any pressure pushing anything up from below. Rather, there’s a “bladder effect” of trapped pressure around the drill-pipe, which is causing a false positive.

In no way was this the only factor leading to the blowout. However, it does distill so many of the behaviors that contributed:

  1. Everyone attempting to follow a fundamental tenet of the oil & gas industry – “Stop the Job” – was silenced in the name of making up time
  2. At best, Vidrine’s input was a hypothesis to be tested, not a conclusion on which to act. There was no rigorous follow-up to determine what would have to be true (or false) for this hypothesis to hold.
  3. Most significantly, ignoring the potential downsides explaining away the data because nothing terrible had happened with previous wells (a great article on Deepwater Horizon goes more in-depth into this topic of “risk-creep” here)

This scene would be great material from which to do role-play exercises and stimulate group discussions from which I’m sure you’d hear many insights, but for now my takeaways are:

  1. It’s not enough to say that you have a structure and culture that allows upwards feedback and resistance. If you don’t live it and show it everyday, to everyone from the intern to the CEO, you’re encouraging deviation from accepted practices.
  2. Data is just numbers, and anyone can make data fit their end goal. Quality data should be coupled with boundaries and guidelines that help contextualize it and reveal the “so what”, or proposed next-steps. If someone wants to deviate from those guidelines (this shouldn’t happen often) there should be multiple levels of investigation and approval to allow this. In the film, the guideline for the negative test was clear: ” a good test starts at 0, stays and 0, and ends at 0″. That strict guideline was ignored.
  3. Data is expensive to gather: sensors such as those used on offshore rigs are expensive to procure and install, and across industries, gathering data sometimes means shutting off production. Why go through all that trouble if the data is immediately trumped by “gut feel” when it indicates a non-desired reading? Data, when properly collected, is so valuable precisely because it allows us to remove personal biases. If we don’t let the data speak for itself, we run the risk of going down a very misleading path.

So those are my thoughts on the film for now. I’m curious to hear more takes from others in the industry in the days and weeks following the film’s release!

*The CBL tests the integrity of the cement sheath that protects the surface from the pressurized fluids below the seabed, so the added expense in time and money should have been seen as small compared to the potential downsides of letting those fluids escape.

David Vaucher is a director in the energy practice of global management consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal. He can be reached at dvaucher@alvarezandmarsal.com

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