Rig's manager says BP tried to skip test, changed drilling plan

Miami HeraldMay 27, 2010 

KENNER, La. — The Transocean manager of the doomed Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig told a board of inquiry on Thursday that BP officials aboard the rig wanted to skip required pressure tests and tried to impose a drilling plan sent from BP's Houston headquarters that had not been approved by the federal government's Minerals Management Service.

Testifying before a Coast Guard and MMS board here, Jimmy Harrell, the Deepwater Horizon’s offshore installation manager, said BP initially wanted to replace heavy drilling lubricant, commonly called mud, at the bottom of the rig’s drill pipe with lighter seawater without performing a negative-pressure test. He said the plan to proceed with removing the drilling mud came from BP's Houston headquarters and had not been approved by MMS.

Harrell refused, however, to go forward without the negative-pressure test, which inovles sucking the air out of the pipeline to see if gas or oil leaks into the pipe. The test is critical to be certain that the pipe is secure before the heavy mud, which is the primary force keeping gas from surging up the pipe, is removed.

“I would not displace without doing a negative test,” Harrell said.

Two negative-pressure tests were performed and they indicated leaks, Harrel said. On the first test, 23 barrels of drilling mud flowed out onto the Deepwater Horizon’s drilling floor. A second test returned 15 barrels, according to Harrell. Ideally, a negative-pressure test returns no drilling mud.

Despite the results, Harrell said he was satisfied with the tests and moved forward with the plan to displace the mud with seawater.

Harrell said he did not recall clashing publicly with BP's representative on the rig over how to proceed with removing the drilling mud and sealing the well. On Wednesday, Doug Brown, the Deepwater Horizon's chief mechanic, said Harrell had a "skirmish" with a "company man" — the term of art used to refer to BP's top official on the rig — during a daily meeting on the day of the explosions.

Brown said that after the "company man" contradicted Harrell on how the final steps were to be taken in closing the well, Harrell said, "Well, I guess that’s what we have those pinchers for" — a reference to the blowout preventer, the supposedly failsafe device intended to clamp off the pipeline in the event of catastrophe.

"I can't recall that," Harrell said. "I don't know. I'm not saying I didn't say it. I'm saying I don't recall."

Harrell identified the BP "company men" aboard the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, the day the well blew up, as Don Vidrine and Bob Kaluza. Kaluza worked the day shift while Vidrine worked the night shift. Harrell said he and Kaluza agreed to the first negative-pressure test on April 19 and Vidrine later went along with a second test.

Both Kaluza and Vidrine declined to testify at the inquiry, with Kaluza invoking his constitutional rights against self-incrimination. Vidrine cited medical reasons, the Coast Guard said.

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