The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Byron King on the 'Culture of Safety'

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted April 23, 2010

Yesterday author, lawyer and blogger Byron King sent me a copy of an article, published in Outstanding Investments newsletter, expressing his thoughts on the tragic loss of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Byron writes that the accident "is hitting home" with him. He recently visited a drillship owned by Transocean, which is the same company that owns and operated the rig that caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Mexico. What he learned apparently gave him a profound sense of respect for the crew.

Byron spent a couple of days onboard Transocean's Discoverer Inspiration, which is a mammoth drillship searching the Gulf for oil and natural gas under contract to Chevron. He says he observed a "culture of safety" even before he was allowed on the ship. He was required to "go through two days of safety training just to set foot near the helicopter" that would shuttle him offshore.

byron_king.jpgByron says safety is a core "value":

"How much of a value? Well, from what I saw, anyone and everyone on that drilling ship had the power to halt any operation if there was something unsafe going on--even a visitor like me. If I saw anything out of line, I could have told a member of the ship's company, and they'd have stopped drilling the well--at a cost to the operator of $1 million a day--until somebody checked it out."

Byron also describes the art of drilling and reminds his readers that the process of finding and producing oil and natural gas can be "very dangerous":

"Deep wells go into highly pressurized zones, including these bizarre pockets hidden within and below the salt beds. These things are called, scientifically, "scrunch" zones that have all manner of crushed rock and exotic, high pressure fluids inside of them.

What I saw on the Inspiration was that much of the drilling effort was focused on monitoring down-hole pressures. You have to have drilling mud at sufficient weight (or rather, density) to keep the down-hole fluids in their place. But you also want the mud to be able to circulate, cool and lubricate the bit, and return the drill cuttings to the surface.

Here's the really tricky thing. If you have 'too much' mud weight, you might damage the formation in which you're drilling. You could break open a fracture plane, and your mud will start draining out. Or you'll force so much mud-crud into the rock pores, that you won't be able to produce any oil further along.

So you've got to keep your pressures balanced. But sometimes, Mother Nature kicks you right in the teeth...Pray for the missing rig workers."

Of course, no one knows what happened onboard the Deepwater Horizon. Hopefully, an investigation will determine the cause so the industry can do its best to make sure it doesn't happen again. As API recently said in a statement, the industry is committed to a goal of zero incidents.

Byron's full article in Outstanding Investments is available by subscription only, but it is expected to be posted at Whiskey and Gunpowder within the next few days.