BP oil spill ‘slows’ but serious IT failures come to surface

Computerworld UK — An internal investigation at BP has revealed serious IT failures played a part in the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The news comes as US officials announced BP had begun to slow the rate that oil is spewing into the sea. A ‘top kill’ effort, whereby thousands of litres of mud and cement are being blasted down to the well heads to stop the oil, has “stabilised” and slowed the flow of oil, the US Coast Guard said. But BP said it required up to 48 hours more work before it could judge early success.

As the Obama administration piles pressure on BP to solve the situation — now the worst oil spill in US history with nearly a million gallons of oil having flooded into the sea each day — the US government released a summary of BP’s own early investigation into the problems. The document contains some damning facts about IT at the rig, which is operated by BP but owned by Transocean.

The parties publicly insist it is too early to apportion blame, but a high profile blame-game is expected to take place as President Obama piles pressure on the industry to pick up the bill for the billions of dollars of damage that has been estimated. BP has spent over £640 million so far.

BP has said the accident “was brought about by the failure of a number of processes, systems and equipment”. It added: “There were multiple control mechanisms– procedures and equipment–in place that should have prevented this accident or reduced the impact of the spill.” These did not succeed.

In the investigation, BP raised “several concerns” about the blowout preventer, which sits on top of the well head 5,000 feet below the water surface, and controls oil flow, according to the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce. The findings are preliminary.

The “failure” of a key emergency disconnect system was noted in a committee memo summarising the early investigation. That system, if effective, would have kicked in to stop the oil from flowing, but signals may not have reached the blowout preventer because of the explosion.

There were also problems with a further automatic closure system, or deadman switch, that should have closed off the preventer if those connections were lost. This also failed. The testing and maintenance of the blowout preventer technology is also in question.

BP additionally experienced “failure” with interventions from its remote operated vehicles, which struggled to operate the shear rams to cut and seal the pipe. The reason for this, too, has not been established.

Other, non-IT items are being investigated by BP for their possible contribution to the disaster — these include the well case and the reservoir-sealing cement.

But staff procedures are also under the microscope — including those taken to detect hazardous deep sea hydrate deposits in the well, and several possible failures in following scheduled pressure testing processes.

Several of BP’s early monitoring systems appeared to have worked, indicating problems with the oil flow, according to the investigation. “One was 51 minutes before the explosion when more fluid began flowing out of the well than was being pumped in,” wrote the committee.

“Another flow indicator was 41 minutes before the explosion when the pump was shut down for a ‘sheen’ test, yet the well continued to flow instead of stopping and drill pipe pressure also unexpectedly increased. Then, 18 minutes before the explosion, abnormal pressures and mud returns were observed and the pump was abruptly shut down.”

This demonstrated that the crew was attempting to make manual interventions, it wrote, but soon afterwards the pressure increased dramatically, leading to the explosion. Nevertheless, a BP investigator told the committee this week that managers and engineers on the rig may have ignored the results of other tests just hours before the explosion.

Earlier this month, BP told Computerworld UK that technology was playing a crucial part in the efforts to stop the spill. This included the robotic submarines being uses to help track and plug the oil, and to detect the composition of the oil in order to contain it in the right way. It is also understood to be drawing on data from its process modelling and in-house Operating Management system to allocate staff and help co-ordinate the response.

As work continues, BP has pledged $500 million (£408 million) for an “open” investigation into the spill, and to research better ways of tracking oil spills with technology.

The ten-year research programme will address what can be done “to improve technology to detect oil, dispersed oil, and dispersant on the seabed, in the water column, and on the surface” as well as for remediating the impact of oil accidently released to the ocean. This is in addition to studying effects of the oil and dispersant on the seabed.

Meanwhile, the US National Science Foundation has embarked on an effort to use one the world’s largest supercomputers to forecast, in 3D, how the spill will affect the US shore line. The machine has about 63,000 computing cores, and is capable of speeds of 579 Teraflops.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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