Fresh Air Interview: Journalist Henry Fountain — 'The Science Behind Deepwater Oil Drilling' The BP disaster has raised questions about the oil industry's ability to manage the risks and challenges involved in drilling thousands of feet below the ocean floor. New York Times science reporter Henry Fountain explains how deep-water drilling is supposed to work — and what may have gone wrong on the Deepwater Horizon.
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The Science Behind Deep-Water Oil Drilling

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The Science Behind Deep-Water Oil Drilling

The Science Behind Deep-Water Oil Drilling

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

About a third of U.S. oil production comes from rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, but before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig burned and sank in April, most of us knew almost nothing about how offshore oil drilling actually works.

The BP disaster has raised questions about the industry's ability to manage the challenges and risks involves in drilling thousands of feet below the ocean floor to reach highly pressurized oil deposits.

In trying to sort of competing theories of the disaster, we're confronted with confusing explanations of the use of synthetic mud and poured concrete in drilling and how the failsafe device, known as a blowout preventer, works.

Today we turn to New York Times science reporter Henry Fountain for some insight into how deep-water drilling is supposed to work and what may have gone wrong on the Deepwater Horizon. Henry Fountain covers engineering and other subjects at the Times and is part of a team of reporters covering the Gulf oil disaster. He spoke, yesterday, with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Henry Fountain, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about deep-water oil drilling, and let's start with the drilling rig in this in the case of this disaster, the Deepwater Horizon. Describe its scale, how it gets into place, what it does.

Mr. HENRY FOUNTAIN (Reporter, New York Times): Yeah, well, most people don't realize how big these rigs are and how essentially - the huge scale of drilling in general, particularly deep water drilling.

The Deepwater Horizon was something like 300 feet by 300 feet and with a drilling derrick 220 to 230 feet high and designed to drill in very deep water, up to about 7,000 feet. So it carries thousands of feet of drill pipe, thousands of feet of other piping. It's really a mammoth piece of equipment.

DAVIES: And it has living quarters and a cafeteria and a movie theater, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Yeah, it has, you know, living quarters for about 175 people.

DAVIES: Right, and so this massive thing is, what, towed into place, right, and then it floats but maintains stability through, what, thrusters or something?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Yeah, it's called dynamic positioning. It has - I believe this rig had eight thrusters. They can rotate 360 degrees, and, basically, it can keep the rig over a certain spot, you know, for days at a time.

DAVIES: All right, and so this massive structure is not even actually designed to extract oil, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: No, it's really the Deepwater Horizon, for one thing, it's so expensive to lease, and it's so specialized, that basically it just drills exploratory wells. It doesn't really, you know, finish the job, so to speak.

DAVIES: All right, so let's sort of go into the basics of drilling a deep-water well. In this case, the Deepwater Horizon, this massive rig, is on the surface of the water, and it lowers a drill bit a mile to the ocean floor, right, and then begins drilling, what, more than two miles beneath that, right?

A big, massive drill bit is grinding a shaft away through the ocean floor, down, down, down. How big a hole, how wide a hole does it dig?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, it varies. At the beginning, it's probably, you know, a couple of feet across. And then towards the end, it gets down to maybe a foot or less. In this case, they were down 18,000 feet total, so 13,000 feet below the sea bed when the accident happened.

DAVIES: All right, so that's two miles beneath the floor of ocean that it's traveling down.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Yeah, a little bit more, more than two miles, yeah.

DAVIES: Now, as it's drilling, there's this heavy, synthetic mud, that -mixture that's used in the process. What is it for? What does it do?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: It does several things. It's called drilling mud, and actually, when oil well drilling first started, it actually was simply dirt and water, and now it's much more complicated, but it does a couple things.

It keeps the drill bit nice and cool, it carries the cuttings from the rock back up to the top of the well, were it, the cuttings get cleaned out, and it also keeps the well under control. It's the basic line of defense in preventing a blowout.

DAVIES: Right, and that's because once you reach the oil deposit, it is under such intense heat and pressure that you don't need to pump it, it could just blast right up the two miles to the surface, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: And in fact, that's what happened in this case, in the blowout. You know, you have 5,000 feet of water in this case, and you have 13,000 feet of rock, and that puts a lot of pressure on the oil, which is basically in a reservoir, down deep.

So without the drilling mud to sort of create this heavy column of downward force, the oil would just come up, and the oil and gas would just come up. So the mud is really the way oil and gas is contained during the drilling process.

DAVIES: So during the drilling process, there is literally a two-mile column of mud that is circulating up and down this bore, this tunnel that's being dug?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Yeah, actually in this case, it was more than three miles because you're coming from the surface of the Gulf. So you're coming down 18,000 feet, which is, you know, close to three and a half miles, really.

DAVIES: All right. Now, the drill bit is boring a hole in the rock, which, you know, you said varies in width. But as I understand it, a steel casing is inserted down the middle of the bore, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right. Steel casing is essentially just more pipe. It's just wider diameter. It's they start with, you know, about 24- or 28-inch diameter, and then as they go down, they sort of make it progressively smaller and smaller.

It's essentially you think of it as sort of the lining of the well. When you drill the well, you have a bare hole with bare rock, and you need to for long-term purposes - you need to line it with something. So that's what the casing does.

DAVIES: And so these are pieces, these are lengths of pipe that are continuously fed down from the rig and go, in this case, three miles down eventually to the deposit.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right, and they do it in sections. They do in fact, I was just out at one of the relief well rigs last week, and they had just put 2,000 feet of case - 18-inch diameter casing - down the hole. So they what they do is they'll drill a section, say 2,000 or 3,000 feet. They'll line it with casing, and the casing is, you know, pieces that are about 40 feet long that basically get screwed together.

And then once they get a string of casing, as they refer to it, in the well, then they'll pull stuff out, put the drill bit back down and keep drilling.

DAVIES: Okay, now, and then cement is used in this process. What's that for?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Yes, the cement is after they get a string of casing in the well, they will pump cement down to the bottom and then have it sort of come around the outside of the casing and go back up, and the idea is it forms a bond between the steel pipe of the casing and the rock formation.

It's very critical to have the casing sort of solidly in the well so that you don't have problems later on.

DAVIES: So if it all goes well, you end up with I guess something like a concrete shaft, descending in this case three miles, with a steel pipe in the middle, kind of almost like I guess a sewer pipe, only it's vertical instead of horizontal right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right, though, you know, a lot of wells aren't even vertical. They start vertical for a while, and then they go off horizontally or at an angle or whatever. But that's the general idea. You have a permanent steel liner that's cemented in place.

Now, when they actually get around to producing oil from the well, they stick another pipe or a tube, they call it, down to actually get the oil out. But at this point, what the Deepwater Horizon was at the point of just putting casing in the well.

DAVIES: Okay, and the other pieces that we need to explain before we explore what went wrong here, is the blowout preventer. And this is a device that rests on the ocean floor, you know, two miles above the actual oil deposit, but it's the failsafe device that's supposed to cut off the well, right, in the case of a catastrophe.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right.

DAVIES: And I think when a lot of us heard about this, I think we pictured like a little valve on the floor, like something the size of a lawnmower. It's much bigger, right? Explain it to me.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: It is. It is much bigger. You know, I was talking about how the mud is sort of the first line of defense to keep the well under control. You can think of the blowout preventer as sort of the last line of defense or the second line of defense.

And it's huge. The one that the Deepwater Horizon had was something like 53-feet tall, about 25-feet wide on both sides, like a square, and weighed something like 350 tons - 700,000 pounds. So it's, you know, it's not a light-duty piece of equipment, really.

DAVIES: Wow, and how does it get into place?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: It's lowered by the ship. Each drilling rig has its own blowout preventer because they're so heavy, and they're so complex that they have to have their own sort of custom-made lifting equipment.

So once the well gets to a certain depth, and pressure becomes an issue, then they'll lower the blowout preventer, and it's basically in line between the drilled part of the well and the ship. So, you know, it's maybe when they get down about 2,000 feet or so.

DAVIES: And so then as the drilling goes on, hundreds, thousands of feet below the floor of the ocean, the shaft that the drill bit is connected to the rig with is surrounded by the blowout preventer. It runs right down the middle of the blowout preventer, which they hope will never be needed but is there in the case of an emergency to seal the well, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right, I mean, you think of it, the blowout preventer is sort of in line. So you have the shaft of the well in the rock, and then blowout preventer is a sort of continuation of that shaft, and then there's a pipe called the riser pipe that goes from there up to the rig, and that, you know, the drill pipe and everything and the mud and everything goes through that riser, through the blowout preventer and then down into the well.

It's true is there for emergency purposes, but the blowout prevent is also used - it has several different sealing mechanisms on it, and some of them are designed to be used, not really in emergency situations, but just, you know, if you have to - if they have to do certain testing or whatever, they'll close part of the blowout preventer.

DAVIES: Right, or if a burp of methane gas comes rising through, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right. That's called a kick, and that can be a very serious situation, and presumably, that's something of what happened in this case.

If you get sort of a, you know, a burp or whatever of gas coming up through the well, and it's for a brief period of time, it exceeds the weight of the mud, so the mud no longer can control the well, well then your blowout preventer is your next line of protection.

And what you would do is close some of these rims to literally seal off the well, at least temporarily, until you can pump heavier mud down to keep things under control.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Henry Fountain. He is a science reporter for the New York Times. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Henry Fountain. He is a science reporter for the New York Times, and we're talking about deep-water oil drilling and the process that was used in the Deepwater Horizon, the rig that burned and sank, leading to the environmental disaster in the Gulf.

Just to recap, for folks who may be joining us, we've talked about how the process works. A drill bit is dropped a mile below the rig to the ocean floors. It drills down more than two miles toward and oil deposit.

As it does so, a steel casing is lowered in the middle. That is surrounded with cement so the steel casing is firmly in place inside the shaft. And then when they reach the oil deposit, the idea is to plug and seal that shaft. And then the rig leaves, and eventually, a production team will come by and actually extract the oil.

DAVIES: Now, at what point in this process were they when this tragedy occurred?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: The Deepwater Horizon had basically drilled the well as deep as it was going to go, about 18,000 feet, into a reservoir that they had hoped was there, and it turned out it was there.

And they were in the process of plugging it up, to temporarily abandon it until the production rig could come along. They had put a bottom plug of concrete in, and they were getting ready to put a top plug closer to the wellhead and the blowout preventer.

They were probably about a day away from, you know, packing up and leaving and going off to another site.

DAVIES: Okay. Now, earlier, we talked about this heavy drilling, this synthetic drilling mud that is used in the process of drilling, and it's up and down the casing. How do you pour a concrete plug into the bottom when all that mud is there? Do they mix together?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: That's a good question. They actually, you know, they can only sort of do one at a time, but they have to keep the well under control. So they have to keep fluid in the, you know, in the whole well at any time.

So what they'll do is they'll sort of use the cement to as they pump the cement down, it'll push the mud out of the way. In this case, they used sort of a buffer material between the mud and the cement because one of the things with cement is, you don't want to contaminate the cement, which might affect how it sets or whatever.

So they used something called lost circulation material, which is sort of even heavier stuff. It's also designed to kind of seal up the sides of the well, the rock portion of the well, even better.

They'd been having a problem on this well where, as they were pumping mud up and down, you know, circulating mud through it as they were drilling it, they encountered sort of very porous rock formations. And so mud was actually being lost into the rock. It's called lost circulation.

And that's first of all, it shows that your formation is not very stable, and it also costs you a lot of money. Drilling mud costs something like $300 a barrel. So they use this stuff to kind of help seal it off.

DAVIES: Right, but presumably, they had this shaft, which went more than two miles below the ocean floor, to the oil deposit, and you've got a steel casing down the middle, and everything looks like it's okay.

The company Halliburton was there, and they were in charge of the cementing, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right. You know, on drill rigs, the actual owner of the well, in this case BP, they only had two people or maybe three or four at times, on this drilling rig. The bulk of the people on the drilling rig worked for Transocean, which is the owner of the rig, but then you had all these other contractors, like Halliburton did the cement. There was another company that handled the mud.

But, so in this case, Halliburton would be in charge, essentially, of sending the concrete cement down the hole.

DAVIES: Now, apparently, some issues arose, and there were some issues on the rig about the cementing process. What were they about?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right, right. The first plug seemed to have gone you know, the bottom, what they call the bottom plug, seemed to go quite well. Then there was the issue of doing the top plug and how they would do it, whether they would leave the mud in, or whether they would take the mud out of the well and displace it with seawater. One reason...

DAVIES: And let me just interrupt here if I can, just to clarify. We're talking the first plug is all the way down at the bottom near the oil deposit, like more than two miles below - a massive plug of concrete that's designed to kind of keep the oil from surging up into it.

The second plug is to be closer to the ocean floor?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Yeah, I think the plan was something about 3,000 feet below the seabed, and that's all pretty much figured out by drilling engineers, who sort of look at the formations and look at, you know, the situation with the pressure and decide where to put these things.

DAVIES: Okay, so you have a massive cement plug in the casing at the bottom of the well. There's all this mud in the well, in the casing, and they want to put a concrete plug somewhere in the middle or higher up above the original plug. Do they leave the mud there? How does that work? What happens?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, ordinarily, or you know, there's really sort of no ordinary in this - but oftentimes you would leave the mud until you're basically ready to pull up the riser pipe and go off to another site.

DAVIES: Now, the riser pipe is the thing that's in the water. It connects the rig to the ocean floor, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right. It's the pipe between the wellhead and the blowout preventer and the rig.

So ordinarily, you know, I guess, you would leave that mud in because it's heavy. It's specifically designed to keep things under control. You know, it's the sort of common way to do things.

But there are a lot of people who have told me, well, you can also easily do what they did in this case, which is remove the mud, displace it with seawater.

That gives you a couple advantages. Number one, when you do get around to leaving, you've saved yourself one step because you've already removed the mud. And also the thinking is you've got a bottom plug in, you've got all this concrete around the casing, cement around the casing, you've got the blowout preventer, and so at this point, you know, it's not as critical to have the mud in there.

DAVIES: Okay, but what were the risks in using seawater instead of mud, while you're putting the second concrete plug in, yeah?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Yeah, the basic risk is seawater's lighter than mud, and, you know, it's something about half the density of mud. And so if you do have a well control problem, if you do have a methane burp or a kick or whatever you want to call it, you don't have as much control.

In fact, you know, with the seawater, you don't have any control. And so you're basically relying on the blowout preventer to work.

DAVIES: And was that what the argument was about on the rig?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: You know, there's varying accounts of that. Some of the people involved say it wasn't really an argument, that this kind of discussion goes on all the time, but there was a discussion, apparently, as to whether they were going to pull the you know, displace the mud before the second plug was put in or wait until afterwards and do it later.

You know, the BP person apparently wanted to displace the mud, put seawater in. Somebody else didn't want to, and the BP person said, effectively, you know, it's our well, we'll do it our way.

DAVIES: And they save money by doing it that way, right? They get that massively expensively rig out of there sooner if they use seawater, and it's faster.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Absolutely, and, you know, in studying the drilling industry, the one thing I can say over the last, you know, six weeks or so, saving money is really a big thing in the drilling industry. That's what they talk about a lot. So it's not surprising that they'd want to do that.

DAVIES: All right, now again, the value of the mud, for folks who may not have heard earlier, is this heavy stuff is part of what counteracts the enormous pressure of the oil, should it break through the concrete barrier and would have enough pressure to blow all the way up to the top. And the mud is heavy enough to weigh against that. Seawater is not.

Was there any reason to believe in this particular case that there was an extra risk? Were there any tests or anything that indicated that they might want to be particularly careful about leaving the mud in longer?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, that's one of the perplexing things. There seems to have been, you know, a sort of a trail of problems with this well. You know, after the accident, some of the workers - some of the workers said, you know, this there was a lot of well control problems, a lot of burps, a lot of kicks, whatever.

They'd had a problem drilling this well, you know, earlier, a couple months earlier, where they lost a tool or lost a drill bit or something down the hole. They had to divert, sort of drill around it.

So it makes you wonder, you know, given that there were apparently some problems with the well, you'd think maybe they'd want to err on the side of caution and not take the mud out.

But then again, as I said, it's not, you know, it's really pretty common to take the mud out earlier and displace it with seawater. So presumably, the people drilling the drilling thought they were okay.

DAVIES: Although not so clear whether there might have been some objection, and BP may have overruled them. That's not entirely clear, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: It's not entirely clear. Then again, you know, the owner of the well - the rig, basically has the final say unless the owner of the rig, in this case, Transocean, unless they feel that, you know, safety is at risk.

GROSS: Henry Fountain, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. We'll hear more of their interview in the second half of the show. Fountain is a science writer for the New York Times and is part of a team of reporters covering the Gulf oil disaster. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with New York Times science reporter Henry Fountain. He's part of a team of reporters covering the Gulf oil disaster for The Times.

The Deepwater Horizon was an exploratory deepwater rig used to find oil reservoirs under the ocean floor. Disaster struck when the rig was preparing to leave the Gulf site. During the process of capping the well with the second of two concrete plugs, BP made what may have been the critical decision to replace heavy synthetic drilling mud, which kept pressure on the oil, with sea water.

Dave asked Henry Fountain to describe what happened next.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, you know, its not entirely clear because, you know, tragically, that most of the people who were witnessed to this did not survive. Eleven people were killed and they were all either on the drilling floor at the time or just below it, working in whats called the mud pits. So its not entirely clear. But what's clear is that there was some sort of well control issue, some sort of, you know, big kick of methane. They were sort of struggling with things for, you know, half an hour at least trying to keep things under control.

There's indications that they, you know, diverted flow and tried other methods to sort of stop things. Probably operated parts of the blowout preventer and may have tried to trigger the, sort of the ultimate feature of the blowout preventer, which are these blind shear rams that would actually sort of, you know, cut the drill pipe and totally seal off the well. And that's really a last ditch thing, because if you do that then youre drill pipe falls down the hole and youve got to go back and fish it out and its going to take you a long time and it's going to cost you a lot of money.

DAVIES: Right. And so, the methane gas that appeared to be exerting pressure on the well, do we know where it came from? Where might it have come from?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, we know it came from the reservoir and from the oil, presumably, but how it actually got up through the well? Now, you know, this well, for one thing it had a, at that point it had a bottom plug with concrete, which should've stopped it from coming up that way. And the cementer and the casing should've prevented any gas from coming up sort of on the sides of the casing. So no one really knows. The speculation has been that the cement job on the last string of casing may not have been all that good.

It might have had pockets of air in it. It might not have set properly. It might've had other problems and that that was sort of the route that the gas took. But it's really not known at this point. One thing is, you know, in talking to drilling engineers, they say cement jobs oftentimes are not very good on the casing strings. They often have to go back afterwards and kind of inject more cement into the exterior of the casing to kind of fix things, so you know, so it could likely be that the cement job wasnt very good and that they were planning on fixing it at some point.

DAVIES: Well, were there any other shortcuts, for lack of a better word, that we know that were taken which might have increased the risk?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, one thing that might have affected the cementing job was that BP apparently decided to use far fewer, a device that's called centralizers, to - when they installed the casing string. Centralizers are just basically pieces of metal that keep a casing sort of centered in the hole. And if you dont use enough of them the casing could be sort of, you know, squeezed up too hard against one side of the well bore. And then when you do your cement job youre going to get a very uneven cement job and you might have parts where there's almost no cement at all. I think they used, you know, something like six centralizers when Halliburton had suggested 21.

Another potential problem is they used...

DAVIES: Just to clarify, I mean one possible consequence might have been holes in the concrete, which in the well, which would've allowed methane, pockets to form, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Sure. You know, you get an uneven cement job like that and that gives you a route that the gas bubble can travel up.

DAVIES: Okay. Anything else?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, you know, they also sort of at the last minute they decided on a sort of final casing string that was different than it's used a lot of times. And it's a sort of a complicated, you know, inside the industry type of subject. But the string that they chose, the string of casing pipe that they chose had fewer barriers per gas to be blocked as was coming up. So it really left the sort of blowout preventer as a major line of defense. If they'd chosen a different kind of casing profile or casing plan they would've had a couple of other barriers up the well that could've stopped the gas.

DAVIES: So a picture does sort of emerge of a whole number of steps taken, none of which are unusual in the industry, but which in this case might have increased the risk.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Yeah. You know, it - I keep thinking of comparing it to sort of a, you know, an airplane crash. I mean they usually say in most crashes, you know, its not just one thing. It's a combination of things which, in most cases, it would never happen. In this case there's a, you know, a combination of things. Perhaps a bad cement job, casing that's, you know, not as sort of failsafe as others. And then, there was some problem with the blowout preventer. Nobody really knows, but something didnt go right with the blowout preventer.

DAVIES: So when this catastrophe occurred, what actually happened on the rig?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, in the last few minutes before the blowout occurred, more and more, you know, stuff was basically coming out of the top of the well because the gas was building up and coming up and it pushed, you know, seawater out of the well, a little bit of mud that was still left. Even - there were some reports that some cement came out of the well. There was a boat tender right next to the rig and some of the crew of that boat, you know, they noticed all of a sudden there was stuff flying down on to the deck of their boat. So presumably, you know, a lot of gas was coming up and, you know, there's a lot of sources for gas to ignite on a drilling rig and at some point the gas ignited and, you know, it's a tremendous explosion. The mud pumps that pump the mud down the well, which are really huge pumps, they were blown clear off the rig.

DAVIES: And then this massive fire was ignited, which eventually consumed and sank the rig, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right. It burned for something like a day and a half. And, you know, it was fed. It wasnt just the rig burning, it was fed by oil and gas coming up through the blown out well. So it was, you know, it sort of like a Roman candle burning on the water for, you know, two days.

DAVIES: Right. And the first thing people saw, was it like a geyser of mud and debris that was just showering over the rig and coming out at the top?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, that's what the witnesses on the boat next door, basically, you know, the first thing they noticed was before an explosion or anything, was all of a sudden it was raining water, cement or whatever on to their boat. So there was an indication of something really bad was happening. And I think one of - the radio guy on the boat was in touch with the rig and the rig people said, you know, we're having real bad problems well, you know, you should get away. So they were in the process of, you know, trying to get away when the thing blew.

DAVIES: And what do we know of whether the operators of the rig or the BP officials reacted well to the emergency? I mean did they summon help as quickly as they should have? Did they try to activate the blowout preventer?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: The people on the rig floor who, you know, the people that perished, presumably, they tried to activate the blowout preventer. And then within about five minutes of the explosion, another worker on the bridge of the boat where the, you know, the actual sailing operations of the rig occurs, he again tried to activate the blowout preventer. He was trying to do what's called the emergency disconnect system, which is supposed to activate these blind shear rams, essentially cutting the pipe and disconnect the top half of the blowout preventer so that the rig could then get away and get, you know, get clear of any problems, and also the well would be controlled by these blind shear rams. So they tried to do that. Nothing happened when they did that.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Henry Fountain. He is a science reporter for The New York Times.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're talking about the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, with New York Times science reporter Henry Fountain.

You and a number of New York Times investigative reporters had a major piece this week about issues with the blowout preventer, this massive 53-foot tall structure that sits on the ocean floor that's the last line of defense in the case of the disaster that we saw which clearly failed. And one of the things you looked at was that there had been studies about the effectiveness of blowout preventer before, including one confidential study done by Transocean, the owner of this particular drill rig. What did these studies find about the reliability of blowout preventer in stopping such a catastrophe?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, you know, it essentially found that there are not as failsafe as the industry has always sort of thought. I mean, you know, in talking to people both with BP and other drilling companies - oil companies -there's this sort of given that, you know, the blowout preventer will stop anything. Its the ultimate failsafe and this is despite studies like that that showed no. In fact, in a lot of cases they dont work or they dont work as well as they're expected to.

You know, it's partly that previous times when they haven't worked, they haven't caused catastrophic oil spills like this one. You know, really the previous underwater catastrophic spill was 30 years ago in Mexico. So, you know, I think a lot of it was just, you know, was sort of denial of reports like that and just thinking, you know, weve got this technology that's worked. It's worked for 30 years. We can't even remember the last time it didnt work and, you know, it was something they didnt really worry about.

DAVIES: Well, there have been a couple of cases where there were underwater blowouts. Not in water this deep which did burn for months, right?


DAVIES: Or at least oil for months. Yeah.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right. There was the one in Mexico. There was one off Australia. But again, you know, there's just sort of a, I don t know if it's called blind faith, but there's just sort of a faith within the industry that, you know, this technology, it's worked pretty much all the time and, you know, it's I think there was sort of an unquestioning attitude about it.

DAVIES: One part of a blowout preventer that didnt work in this case was what's called a blind shear ram, which cuts the pipe. And I think a lot of us when we hear of this are puzzled because we think well, the last thing you'd want to do is cut that pipe because now the oil is going to go everywhere. How does it cut and seal it?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Well, it's, you know, it really is shears. It's these big massive sort of plates with sharp edges and they come from either side and they cut the pipe and they have rubber seals as well on them. So they form, basically they block the entire width of the wellbore, which at that point is about 18 inches in diameter. So its, you know, most of the other parts of the blowout preventer only say block the space between the drill pipe and the wellbore, which is called the annulus or they might, you know, block the well pipe - the drill pipe. But this one does sort of does the whole thing.

Now, one of the issues is that a lot of blowout preventers will have two of these blind shear rams, about three or four feet apart, because a drill pipe is not just sort of this uniform piece about six inches in diameter. There's what they call joints where two pieces of drill pipe are brought together. They're thicker. They're sort of harder steel and these blind shear rams actually can't cut one of these joints. So, if you had two blind shear rams, if one of them encountered a joint, the other one being a couple feet away would not encounter a joint. It would be able to cut the pipe. This particular blowout preventer only had one of these shear rams.

DAVIES: Right. So if the wrong point in the pipe is connected to the shear ram youve got a real problem.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right. And that's another theory as to why it didnt work.

DAVIES: So when there was this catastrophic blowout and this fire which would eventually sink the rig, was it then inevitable that we would have the kind of horrendous oil leak that we are now experiencing?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: You know, at that point it probably was, because you had this, you know, terrible fire. The drill was, you know, they were shooting at it with water canons to stop but they had really no hope of putting the fire out. And, you know, once all the electrical systems were gone, the rig - its dynamic positioning ability was gone and so it started to maneuver, you know, sort of out of control. And at some point, either before it sank or as it sank, that riser pipe that connected the rig to the wellhead, broke and collapsed.

And at that point, you know, if all the oil and gas had been coming up and burning on the rig, which probably was the case, at that point, all that oil and gas was now just flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. So by, you know, a day and a half after the blowout, now you had a massive, you know, oil spill in the Gulf.

DAVIES: It's clear that a lot has been written about government regulators, the Minerals Management Service and its closeness to the industry. As youve looked at what happened on the Deepwater Horizon, does it seem to you that government regulators were aware of the decisions that were being made on the rig or did they just not even follow it that closely? I mean, there are permits that are required for all this stuff, right?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: There are. I think in terms of specifically what happened that evening, I dont think that regulators would've been aware. But, for instance, if, you know, when they had the problem where they lost a drilling tool down the well and they had to, you know, divert the well around it essentially, they had to apply for a permit for that.

Now, there's the whole question of how thoroughly the regulatory agency's, in this case the Minerals Management Service, how thoroughly they actually, you know, look at issues and whether they're easily, you know, intimidated or just sort of following lockstep with what the industry wants. I mean, there's a lot of questions about that. But in terms of what specifically happened that night, no, that was just within the people on the drill floor. They probably talked to their respective engineers onshore in Houston. But they wouldnt have talked to regulators.

DAVIES: You know, President Obama, after this disaster, imposed a six month moratorium on deepwater exploratory projects. It doesnt affect production but it does affect exploratory projects, as I understand it, in more than 500 feet of water. There's, of course, an ongoing legal fight about that. And I'm wondering whether you think all of the safety issues that have arisen as weve explored this disaster can really be resolved in six months?

Mr. FOUNTAIN: You know, that's a really good question. And I, you know, I dont think so. I think really, you know, one of the things that I think about when I think about this, it reminds me of, you know, the Challenger disaster or the Apollo 1 fire. You know, in all those cases involving NASA, they took a couple of years to get safety issues worked out. And I think, you know, the blowout preventer technology, the general drilling technology really needs, you know, it needs an overhaul. And six months, you know, I think theyll find out in six months what went wrong with the blowout preventer. But in terms of sort of, you know, making them better, I think it's going to take more than six months.

Now obviously, you know, its not like NASA. I mean the drilling - the oil business is big business. We didnt have any economic, you know, drive to get us to the moon or to, you know, you keep using the space shuttle, so it's unclear if theyll be able to maintain a moratorium past six months.

DAVIES: You know, as you have learned and written about deepwater drilling, I mean, its striking what a remarkably immense and complicated undertaking this is, which none of us had any idea of, really, that we're having these rigs a mile above the surface that then take us down a mile to the ocean floor, then two miles beneath that and drill these tunnels and then put in cement and steel casings and then have this massive four-story complicated blowout preventer to guard us from disaster. It's all stuff that's new to us. And as you get into the details and write about it, I'm wondering if there are certain, I dont know, central ideas or messages that you think its important for your readers to get.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Yeah. You know, it's amazing the length and the extremes we go to get oil. That's, you know, one of the things I've learned. And, in fact, this particular well that had the blowout wasnt really unusual. It was drilling in water, you know, that - 5,000 feet but the deepest wells have been drilled in 10,000 feet of water and it was total depth of 18,000. And there's wells that are 30,000 feet deep. But, you know, one of the things is it really kind of all goes back to our need for oil, and not just for cars but for pretty much everything - plastics, fertilizers, almost, you know, everything in society.

And the problem is that the sort of the easy oil has basically been gotten -the oil from land, the oil from shallow offshore wells. And so, going forward, we're going to have more and more of these wells being drilled in extreme conditions. So, you know, in a way, there's potential for more disaster in the future. And it seems to me if there was, you know, if there was ever an argument for pursuing alternative energies, you know, the argument is being made now, you know, in a pretty hard way but it's being made.

DAVIES: Well, Henry Fountain, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. FOUNTAIN: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Henry Fountain, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Fountain is a science writer for The New York Times and is part of a team of reporters covering the Gulf oil disaster.

You'll find links to Fountain's articles about the disaster on our website

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