There are some striking parallels between the calamity unfolding off the coast of Louisiana and an almost forgotten oil spill off the coast of north-west Australia last year.
The two incidents have been linked in US Congressional hearings, reinforcing evidence tendered at a recent Australian inquiry. Perhaps the most alarming link is that the same company, Halliburton, has been accused of stuffing up the crucial cementing on both wells. And there are suggestions that other wells in Australian waters may also be vulnerable.
Last August the Montara well off the Western Australian coast suffered a “blowout” and spilled oil into the Timor Sea for 106 days. Like the Gulf of Mexico, the Australian well proved very difficult to plug and the rig eventually caught fire. But mercifully no one died and less oil escaped. It was remote and the currents were favourable so there was less damage. Even so, it was Australia’s worst oil rig disaster.
An inquiry into the Montara spill has been conducted by federal bureaucrat David Borthwick, and his findings will be handed down next month.
Transcripts of evidence reveal that oil services company Halliburton was part of the team overseeing the complex cementing process on the Australian well. The team got the mixture wrong and the cement failed to set. In evidence the drilling supervisor, Noel Treasure, admitted there had been a “calculation error with respect to the volume of cement which was missed by everyone, the people in Perth, on the rig and the Halliburton guys doing the cementing. Everyone missed it.”
In the Gulf of Mexico, Halliburton has also been accused of failing to follow procedure. Two weeks ago, Congressman Bart Stupak told a House of Representatives committee:
“Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil service companies, says that it had secured the well through a procedure called cementing, and that the well had passed a key pressure test, but we now know this is an incomplete account. The well did pass positive pressure tests, but there is evidence that it may not have passed crucial negative pressure tests.”
The government body that regulates oil drilling in the US is the Minerals Management Service. Its recently retired head of offshore regulation, Elmer Danenberger, linked the Montara and Gulf spills in congressional testimony earlier this month. He blamed the cementing process for these and several other spills.
He said “18 of 39 blowouts during the 15-year period from 1996 to 2006 involved cementing operations”. He called for the development of an industry standard to address cementing problems and concluded “in light of the findings from the Montara blow-out (Australia), and related concerns elsewhere, there is significant international interest in such a standard”.
Danenberger also sent a submission to the Montara Inquiry in Australia. Cementing was again a major focus.
“Based on the information that has been submitted to the commission, well bore integrity was compromised by deficiencies in the cementing of the 9 5/8″ casing. Cementing problems are a leading cause of well control incidents”
Cementing isn’t the only problem. The Montara inquiry also heard testimony that the vital pressure containment caps, used to plug the well, were deficient and that the operator of the Montara Well — a company called PTT — failed to follow its own safety procedures. There was this alarming exchange between the counsel assisting the commissioner, Tom Howe, and Craig Duncan, the well construction manager for PTT.
HOWE: So it seems as though, in terms of compliance with PTT’s own well construction standards, the situation is that not a single well is compliant?
DUNCAN: Given that we didn’t test those corrosion caps, no.
HOWE: Do you mean you agree with me?
If this is the case, shouldn’t several other wells in the Timor Sea undergo urgent safety audits?
The Montara inquiry should be receiving much more scrutiny. It is not only yielding the answers to the worst oil rig disaster in Australian history, it might also be providing valuable clues to the causes of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico — perhaps the worst oil rig disaster in history.