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Gulf oil spill: Rifts between companies common on rigs, witness says

May 26, 2010 |  2:09 pm

Afternoon testimony in an inquiry into the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion revealed that rifts often erupt among the multiple contractors and companies involved in drill operations.

Appearing before a joint Coast Guard/U.S. Minerals Management Service panel, Captain Carl Smith of Diamond Offshore Drilling said there was sometimes tension on offshore rigs between the "company men" and the rig crew, particularly over the pace of operations. Smith was called as an expert witness.

"Some [company men] have become outright adversaries, but they're the people paying the bills. They control helicopters, the boats, what's going on and off the rig. But I have to say, most of them are safety- conscious."
Smith was asked how a drilling operation balances the sometimes-conflicting goals of safety and financial efficiency.
“You don’t want to lose an asset like a rig," he replied.

Earlier testimony highlighted a conflict between oil giant BP and Transocean, the company that leased the drilling rig to BP, about whether to proceed with finishing and sealing the well in the hours before an explosion erupted April 20.

Smith explained that the offshore installation manager, who works for the rig owner, sometimes might have to tell the company whose well is being drilled that proceeding isn't safe. “The operator may not be happy waiting … but it is what it is," Smith said.

Smith also said Transocean's organizational chart was somewhat unusual, in that it had both an offshore installation manager and a master, stationed off-shore. Smith said he usually serves in both positions, "so there’s no doubt if an emergency occurs who’s going to be directing the effort."

Speaking about the sequence of the disaster April 20, Smith said unusual practices were used when the crew was finishing off the drilling operation by replacing heavy drilling "mud" with seawater.

"That's something you learn at well-control school," he said. "If you're circulating fluid, you need to monitor how much is going in and how much is coming out. If you get more fluid out than in, it's an indicator that something's going on."

Despite having well-control training, Smith said, he would never want to try to stop an out-of-control well. “I would be scared to death to have to do that."

When asked why, he replied: "Did you see the pictures of that rig? Would you be scared to death? … That’s something I don’t do routinely.”

His said he suspected the answer to how the disaster occurred are within the well, drilled 13,000 feet below the ocean bottom: "This is a below-the-mud-line, down-the-well engineering problem.”

David Forsyth of the American Bureau of Shipping testified that the well's blowout preventer was last inspected in 2005 and that no further inspections were done, at Transocean's request.

-- Ashley Powers