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The Science Behind Deepwater Oil Drilling
TERRY GROSS, host:
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 â 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 â 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
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
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 â they start with, you know, about 24- or 28-inch
diameter, and then as they go down, they sort of make it progressively 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 â for
long-term purposes - you need to line it with something. So that's what the
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 â 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 â 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 â 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
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
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 â 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
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
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
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 â 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 â 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,
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
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 â 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
â 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 â 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
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 â 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
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 â
there was a lot of well control problems, a lot of burps, a lot of kicks,
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. Iâm 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, itâs 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 whatâs called the mud pits. So itâs 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 youâre drill pipe falls down the
hole and youâve got to go back and fish it out and itâs 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 wasnât 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 donât 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 youâre 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
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, itâs 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 didnât go right with the blowout
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
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 wasnât 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
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 youâre 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. Itâs the ultimate failsafe and this is despite studies like that that
showed no. In fact, in a lot of cases they donât work or they donât 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, weâve got this technology that's worked.
It's worked for 30 years. We can't even remember the last time it didnât work
and, you know, it was something they didnât 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?
Mr. FOUNTAIN: 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 didnât 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 itâs, 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
youâve got a real problem.
Mr. FOUNTAIN: Right. And that's another theory as to why it didnât 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
DAVIES: It's clear that a lot has been written about government regulators, the
Minerals Management Service and its closeness to the industry. As youâve 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 donât 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 wouldnât have talked to
DAVIES: You know, President Obama, after this disaster, imposed a six month
moratorium on deepwater exploratory projects. It doesnât 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 weâve
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 donât
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 theyâll 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, itâs not like NASA. I mean the drilling - the oil
business is big business. We didnât 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 theyâll be able to maintain a moratorium past six months.
DAVIES: You know, as you have learned and written about deepwater drilling, I
mean, itâs 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 donât
know, central ideas or messages that you think itâs important for your readers
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 wasnât 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
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Real Life Documentaries Trump Reality TV Every Day
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our TV critic David Bianculli is worried that reality TV has given actual
reality a bad name. But, David says just because cameras are dispatched to film
people going about their every day lives, the result doesnât have to be âReal
Housewives" or "Jersey Shore." As proof, he looks at two new programs offered
this week, actual documentaries displaying, David insists, actual intelligence.
DAVID BIANCULLI: I've come to really, really dislike the term reality TV
because it seems so misleading in every respect. The words the people say in
these shows may not be scripted, but the people themselves are cast to conform
to various types and meet unspoken expectations. Abrasive, annoying,
loudmouthed people are included in the mix not by accident but to inject doses
of conflict and drama.
And when the activities in which they're engaged aren't engaging enough, these
people will perform for the camera, embarking on errands or missions designed
to make themselves, and their shows, more interesting. This isn't reality TV.
It's TV paint-by-numbers.
But even if the old-fashioned documentary is, by now, a rare and endangered
species, it still exists if you know where to look for it. Currently, you can
find one excellent documentary, called "Gasland," in rotation on HBO and its
sister networks. And beginning this week, you can spend the next two months
with "Boston Med," a gripping documentary series on ABC.
"Gasland," by writer-director Josh Fox, basically does for the natural gas
industry what Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" did for the auto industry. It slowly
reveals the practices and excesses of some greedy corporations and shines a
light on the innocent victims left in their wake. In this case, it's people
being slowly poisoned, along with their local water supply, by methods of
extracting natural gas from the ground. It's a powerful, persuasive, coolly
instructive film. And as things keep going wrong with the massive oil leak in
the Gulf of Mexico, "Gasland" couldn't be more timely. So look for it in your
HBO listings, and watch it. Prepare to be outraged.
And for the next eight Thursday nights, beginning this week, look for ABC's
"Boston Med," the newest medical documentary series from executive producer
Terence Wrong. His most recent nonfiction series in this vein, focusing on
Johns Hopkins' medical center in Baltimore, won a Peabody Award. Wrong's method
of operation â an increasing rarity in the world of network television â is to
pick a subject, descend upon it, and stay there for a year or more. He captures
what happens without knowing what will happen or which people and events will
emerge as central subjects.
This method is similar to the way the infinitely patient Frederick Wiseman
films documentaries but sometimes, when watching a lengthy Wiseman documentary,
the viewer needs infinite patience, too. With "Boston Med," the stories may
have taken a long time to collect, but they unspool quickly and dramatically.
"Boston Med" looks at three Boston medical institutions: Children's Hospital,
Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women's Hospital. This gives
the series, over its eight weeks, a great range of medical stories, from drunks
in the ER to infants in intensive care, and gives us looks at a lot of
different doctors and nurses as well.
Because this is ABC, the home of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice,"
"Boston Med" is not without some conventions of the scripted medical drama.
There's music meant to evoke specific emotions. There are plenty of stunning
shots of the Boston cityscape. And most of all, there are real-life caregivers
who not only look like characters from these medical soap operas, but in some
cases, are keenly aware of them.
From episode three, here's Amanda Grabowski, an ER nurse talking about her
(Soundbite of ABC's documentary, "Boston Med")
Ms. AMANDA GRABOWSKI (ER nurse): Youâd think work would be a great place to
meet somebody. But you know what, thereâs no McDreamys or McSteamys walking
around here. Thereâs McDumb, McDud. There's like people here that are cute here
and this environment, but youâre like, I wonder if I took you out of the
hospital and put you in real clothes in a real social situation if you would
still be cute. So there's a lot hospital cute guys but...
BIANCULLI: That may make "Boston Med" sound flippant. It's not â it's anything
but. The overall message is that these people band together to do the most
amazing and intricate medical procedures, yet they are, at bottom, only human.
They bicker, joke, flirt, juggle home lives, complain and they make mistakes,
which are included in "Boston Med," making it a much stronger and more
compelling series as a result.
Not everyone lives or does well at these institutions but sometimes even sudden
death isn't the end of the story. This eight-part series concludes with an hour
devoted to a single case â the second attempt in medical history at a face
transplant. A case that "Boston Med" was able to follow and film merely because
it began with another case and another patient entirely and followed where
It's a breathtaking end to a superb series, one which is likely to make you
shed a tear at some spots and smile widely at others. And, like the people and
events in "Gasland," it's real reality TV.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches
television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.
I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.