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Engineer Under Fire

August 25, 2010

One of Halliburton's engineers testified in front of a government panel on Tuesday. The issue involves centralizers; best I can tell (and I'm not a drilling engineer) centralizers are used when cement or casing is poured down a deep well. If the cement isn't centered, you can have an imperfect seal, presumably pressure could build up along the sides. Possibly this imperfectly centered casing and built up pressure was possible for the final blow, though of course it's still possible that wouldn't have affected the explosion either way.
Halliburton and BP knew they had a problem prior to the explosion and supposedly Halliburton's Gagliano (the engineer) recommended 21 centralizers. However, a report from the same day written by Gagliano recommends only 7 centralizers. Gagliano says that was procedure from the rig and not his engineering recommendation.
Well it all sounds very probable to me. Lately I've written reports that by the time they go out look almost nothing like what I started with. So many people above my head have their hands in the pie it might as well not be my name on it at all. I may do the original research and analysis but the higher up you are the more you have a say in how to frame it, what to include, what to leave out.
But it sounds like they had more centralizers and a BP engineer was offering to bring them out. Only the team leader on site didn't want to slow drilling enough to install them all.
It's almost never an easy someone should have spoken up kind of deal. I remember the Challenger disaster and engineers with a subcontractor who supposedly voiced concerns and wanted more time. But NASA and the contractor were under pressure. A flailing space program and delayed launches meant people felt their reputations were on the line. They were of course, but in a more crucial way. It's tough because these cases are certainly not the only ones in the world where an engineer voices a concern and nothing is done to directly deal with it. Only most times it doesn't result in catastrophic failure. Most times the rig holds, the seals are fine. Most times management has to take a calculated risk in everything it does. When 99.99% of the time the risk is worth it it's difficult to believe we should always stop and listen to every nagging concern. If we had, we probably wouldn't have gone to space to begin with. There's no way you can tie up every loose end.
At the same time, BP is a publically traded company. The team leader probably had a quota to meet, maybe it affected his bonus, but point was he wasn't going to delay without good reason. Maybe the engineers didn't sell their case very well, or maybe there was a history of quieting these kinds of concerns in favor of keeping up with production. Perhaps we'll know more as the story unfolds but I find myself sympathetic to the engineers who were in fact part of the machine and while concerned were probably used to having their protests ignored. I don't think it's clear cut this was the reason for the explosion yet, but I do think we'll find company culture contributed.
One Comment leave one →
  1. August 26, 2010 12:38 pm

    Very perceptive observations. It's never as simple as portrayed on the news.

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