Movie Review – Deepwater Horizon

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

I’ve seen the movie “Deepwater Horizon” three times. My emotions are mixed, none involving humor.

Yes, the movie may get an Oscar for spectacular visual effects. Yes, noteworthy actors play key wellsite leaders who will shock viewers with disturbing actions and decisions. Yes, the movie treats with great respect those who survived and the 11 who died.

But no, an abundance of ambiguous technical snippets, both verbal and visual, do little to inform those who want and need to know the answer to … what caused the blowout?

So, why this note? As a 2015-16 SPE Distinguished Lecturer (DL) on the cause of the Macondo-blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, my passion is to ensure every member of our industry learns from and works toward never allowing a repeat of the catastrophe. I trust you will see the movie, but I invite you to also read “The Simple Truth: BP's Macondo Blowout.” The book focuses on the cause of the disaster (no politics, no hearsay, no finger pointing, no Hollywood) and is available through Amazon.

Movie Review — “Deepwater Horizon

I wrote the above succinct review of the movie “Deepwater Horizon” as an introductory comment for my new connections on LinkedIn. But for those in the industry who truly do care, a review of such a critical movie deserves more detail; hence, the following.

I’ll use a recent experience as the basis for my review.

On 13 October I joined 100 Colorado School of Mines (CSM) petroleum engineering students and faculty for a private screening of the movie. I was invited to emcee the event, where I watched the movie for the third time and then led an energetic hour-long discussion and Q&A session.

Every attendee had a vested interest in the career-related movie, and each is intellectually capable of understanding every aspect of what appeared on the screen.

Afterwards, audience comments ranged from “OMG” and “unbelievable” to “how could anybody have survived?” Some comments were in the form of body language only, without words to describe tear-moistened emotions.

We discussed three aspects of “Deepwater Horizon.

The Movie

First, for the film as a whole: The setting, working families, onshore and offshore facilities and the massive Deepwater Horizon drilling rig are exactly right. Even as the story unfolds on the rig we get to see good renditions of the actual control room, shops, the galley, offices, the rig floor, a workboat and working personnel everywhere. Then, once the disaster unfolds, with fluids — mud, oil, gas — blowing violently over the derrick, followed by explosions and fire throughout the facility, the situation on the rig could not have been more horrific, nor could the visual effects have been more stunning or more realistic. For those who have ever been on, or will ever be on, a rig, whether onshore or offshore, the movie is a harsh view of a world we should strive to never see again.

So, with strong agreement from students and faculty, the bottom line for the film as a whole: kudos, job well done.

People

Also important to those who care are the relationships among the players, on several fronts. First, there’s a well-portrayed rig worker (key to the story) and his wife and daughter as he prepares to go to the rig for his 21-day hitch. Associated scenes do a good job of showing family dynamics, and remind the audience that all persons out there – and those they leave at home – are real people with emotions, concerns and love for life.

On a different scale, the dynamics of relationships among leaders on the Deepwater Horizon are entirely different, albeit handled quite well in the movie. Though there are four key leadership positions on the rig (plus four visiting executives), the conflict is simple:

  1. The well belongs to BP, who pays all the bills, and BP’s senior guys (company men) on the rig make all technical and operating decisions about the well.
  2. The rig owner, Transocean, has three senior leaders – the toolpusher, who is in charge of the drilling rig and all its functions and personnel; the offshore installation manager (OIM), who is responsible for the non-drilling facilities (i.e., the “hotel”); and the captain, who is in charge of keeping the floating rig (considered by the U.S. Coast Guard as a vessel at sea) on station (above the well head).

In a departure from reality, the OIM is given a major speaking/debating role throughout the movie, including rig-related matters (normally handled by the toolpusher), likely due to the fact that the real OIM survives while the toolpusher does not.

The rig status on the critical day is that the discovery well has been drilled, cased and cemented. In preparation for temporary abandonment, the well must be pressure-tested to ensure casing and cement integrity. The high-pressure test goes well, but the negative-pressure test (designed to manually reduce the wellbore pressure to ensure there are no leaks from outside the casing) fails to prove the well is secure and generates anomalous data.

The predominant heated argument in the movie is that:

  1. The BP leaders (company men) agree that the test data was bad, but argue it was bad only because of the “bladder effect.” The movie does a good job with characters arguing about the technical aspects of the bladder effect (which, in the real world, does not exist, leaving an unnecessary open issue with the audience).
  2. Every other non-BP leader, even the workboat captain, argues that the test data prove the well has a leak (though they would not know) and that the BP leaders don’t want to admit the failure, as it would lead to a major time-and-money cement repair job.

The audience doesn’t know what’s right or wrong, but by now they rank the BP rig leaders as bad guys, an apparent goal of the movie. The movie shows BP’s fallback decision is to rerun the test in a different way (using the kill line), which does successfully show the well has pressure integrity. An argued one-liner in the movie proposes it’s possible the second test was invalid, because the kill line might have been plugged. In reality, it was – with catastrophic results, though not mentioned again in the movie.

The false “good” test justifies for BP (and reluctantly for the other rig leaders, at least in the movie) the next step in the abandonment process — pumping seawater into the well to displace heavy drilling mud from the 5,000-foot-long drilling riser. Given that the well had a serious undetected casing/cement leak (a documented, albeit off-screen, failure of the company men to correctly interpret the negative pressure test), such displacement of riser mud with seawater allowed the well to flow (aka, a kick … though unseen), even as more seawater was being pumped, exacerbating the accelerating flow.

The result was BP’s Macondo blowout.

As soon as the well commences blowing out, rig personnel rightfully actuate a BOP unit (blowout preventer), but they panic verbally to each other, making the point that the BOP, in apparent total failure, did not stop the violent flow. The flow of oil and gas finally explodes and burns, from the moon pool to the top of the derrick and throughout the living facilities – the cataclysm seemingly beyond belief, but very real.

Understandably, as the fire escalates, personnel conflicts go away, replaced by individual instincts for survival. The choices were few — either fight your way through the fire and get to a lifeboat, or jump overboard. Yet, as well-portrayed in the movie and as supported by testimony during the USCG depositions after the disaster, injuries were abundant, as were individual acts of heroism that saved lives and deserve military-type honors. And though the viewing audience likely will not recognize real-life names unless they live and work on the Gulf Coast, they will have watched 11 good men, played by surrogate actors in the movie, just doing their jobs on this, their last day. Their bodies were never found.

From the student perspective, the film vividly portrayed the importance of understanding data, reacting to change, respecting authority, standing up to incompetence and accepting and executing technical job responsibilities, without fail.

Technical

The third aspect of the limited 100-minute movie that needs clarification is the necessarily rapid coverage of abundant technical issues that took place during the rig’s 12-hour countdown to disaster. A number of issues were visual only, or introduced as one-liners, requiring attendees to ponder the significance.

For example, natural gas was seen erupting on a number of occasions from the seafloor around the BOP, increasing in frequency and violence proportional to the tension of the movie and the ticking clock. Not true. No gas evolved around the wellhead, either before, during or after the blowout. Sorry to say, this was for show, and looked really ominous, but detracted from movie credibility.

There also was a conflict about a service company leaving the rig before running a CBL, or cement bond log. Every named player on the rig (and again, even the workboat captain) was astounded that BP had released the logging team without the CBL, while the BP leaders, when challenged, were confident with their decision. The concern was that the 18-hour-old cement, outside the casing, 18,000 feet deep (not the structural-casing cement at 5,000 feet, just below the seafloor, as wrongly shown in a diagram during the argument), could be bad, and the CBL would tell them so. Not true. The CBL does not test the cement. In reality, the tool is used in limited circumstances when there’s been a significant problem during a cement job (and more so during completion operations). That was not the case on Macondo, where BP showed the deep cement job met the criteria for no CBL. Conversely, the negative-pressure test directly tests the pressure integrity of the deep cement and the rest of the wellbore. Unfortunately, so much movie time was spent on the CBL debate that attendees were surely wrongly convinced that it was one of the leading causes of the blowout.

The BOP also got a lot of attention. Two key items here:

  • First, deepwater operations require the BOP stack (comprised of several BOP units) to be on the seafloor. For Macondo, that’s about a mile below the rig. And that means when the Macondo well kicked, unseen, and was enhanced by the continued pumping of seawater to further displace heavy mud, the entire wellbore – casing and riser – filled with oil and gas. That means when flow was first seen on the rig floor and the first BOP unit finally was closed, there were almost 1,600 barrels of oil and gas already in the riser between the rig and the closed BOP (actually two closed BOP units). To make matters worse, the gas in the riser had risen to be so shallow that the low hydrostatic pressure allowed the gas to break out of solution. The resulting explosive expansion of the gas mimicked a Mentos-Diet Coke experiment – unstoppable, because it was above the BOP. It was that oil and gas, from the riser, that blew over the top of the 244-foot-tall derrick, just before gas and atomized oil were sucked into the engine room — the catalyst for the first explosion and resulting fire.
  • The second BOP-stack issue centers on a third BOP unit, the blind shear ram (BSR), located between the two other closed BOP units. Closure of the BSR is the critical first half of a last-ditch emergency operation designed to release the rig from the BOP stack (to get away from the fuel source and stop the fire). A serious consequence of the massively flowing Macondo blowout was that the drillpipe between the two closed BOP units was so severely uplifted and deformed that the BSR was unable to close. The movie tempts the audience with “a big red button” that would save the day. When the red button is finally pushed (after much debate), we see sharp blades move toward each other … then stop. Consequently, the pipe is not cut, the well is not sealed and the rig is stuck on location, burning on top of the fountain of oil and gas. No further mention in the movie about the BSR, other than that the BOP failed.
Summary

The CSM students in the theater were hungry for real data, wanted to understand the nuances of the one-liners and did not want to be taken in by misinformation, which made for lively Q&A. And yes, because they wanted and needed to know, we thoroughly discussed what caused the blowout, which, to be candid, was beyond the scope of the movie.

Nevertheless, though there are other technical sub-topics worthy of debate, it’s fair to say the “Deepwater Horizon” writers, producers and consultants did a credible job of creating dialog, building tension and revealing important issues before anybody on the rig knew there was any chance of a blowout – then wrapped it up with spectacular visual effects. And that takes true creativity.

Bottom line. For the movie, the people and the technology: Job well done – with a few caveats.

“Deepwater Horizon” is a must-see movie.

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