‘Deepwater Horizon’ film likely sacrifices real safety discussion for Hollywood tropes

‘I doubt the movie will examine anything similar to Béla Lipták’s technical analysis or remedies,’ says Jim Montague.

By Jim Montague

You may already know the Deepwater Horizon movie is opening on Sept. 30. By the time you read this, you may have seen it. I hope it does the tragedy and victims some justice, but I’m doubtful. At first, I was pleased to see a reminder and hopefully some commemoration of the blowout, fire and explosion on April 20, 2010, that killed 11 workers, injured 17 others, and befouled and poisoned a large part of the Gulf of Mexico.

Just in case you need a refresher, the oil drilling platform was owned by Transocean Ltd., under contract to BP, and located 50 miles southeast of Venice, La. As our columnist Béla Lipták has explained in several stories, the platform’s 18,300-foot-deep well ruptured in a low-design-pressure section of the rise pipe due to a pressure imbalance between mud and seawater circulated in the drill pipe and potentially explosive methane hydrate or methane ice (MI) crystals in the well’s deposits. Lipták added that BP’s well casing design released heat into the well during cementing, risking a kick, and the explosion occurred right after the cement seal around the wellhead was heated, causing the MI crystals to explode and shoot up, damaging a badly designed seal. 

Unfortunately, BP’s blowout preventer (BOP) system was faulty or inoperative, and the backup BOP and automatic controls it should have had were non-existent. Consequently, in addition to the deaths and injuries, the result was an 87-day, 210-million-gallon oil spill, the largest marine spill and worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Check out Control’s full catalog of coverage on Deepwater Horizon, specifically:

Automatic override control  could have prevented the BP Deepwater Horizon oil well accident

Automation can prevent the next BP spill

Beyond the incalculable human cost and misery, BP estimated earlier this year that total costs for the accident will be about $61.6 billion. Though I can’t find the reference yet, I seem to remember a couple of sources reporting that a functional BOP, backup and automatic controls would have cost $700,000 to $2-3 million, and would have prevented the whole disaster. What a great investment!

Process control engineers don’t swing in on a chandelier at the last minute.

Anyway, though I was initially glad to see a retelling and maybe some added awareness raising about the continuing need for thorough process safety, my misgivings about the movie quickly multiplied. Naturally, I don’t expect Hollywood to tell any true story right. When has the movie industry ever done that? Accuracy never gets in the way of melodrama, easy answers and box office receipts. Even the former squishy caveat “Based on actual events,” has been replaced in recent years by the even-more-spineless “Inspired by real events.”         

Personally, I don’t have a problem with dramatic reenactments. It’s just that slick presentations seem at odds with the consistent, careful and cautious support roles usually occupied by process control engineers. Similar to their components, controls and networks, they’re always available and constantly completing necessary tasks. They don’t swing in on a chandelier at the last minute. Most of the police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors, municipal and court clerks, school board members, local elected officials, nurses, doctors, factory workers and parents I’ve covered in my career are the same way. They skip the melodrama, and follow through to get their jobs done.

Special Report: Béla Lipták on safety in oil & gas  <http://info.controlglobal.com/oil-and-gas-safety-bela-liptak_sf>

Pretty boring, but that’s the difference between real life and movies. No trumpets. Just crucial tasks to complete despite circumstances. So, I could be wrong, but I doubt the Deepwater Horizon flick is going to examine anything similar to Lipták’s technical analysis or remedies. Still, I find myself hoping he’s listed as a technical consultant in the credits. That would be pretty cool, I admit, but it would be even better if more of the world’s oil platforms and other deficient process applications adopted the safety measures they know they should have in place. Preventing accidents and saving lives might not make a great movie, but it would be a lot happier ending.  

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  • The worst shame of this movie is that it seeks to demonize "big oil" even further. In one of its most egregious moments, it makes it look as if the lady at the control panel KNEW something was going to happen, but held back the information because of company direction. In the official review, the lady indicates that the information/data flow she was using to view the process was terrible enough that when the crap hit the fan she was completely befuddled and confused. This is not the fault of an operator. It has been blamed on human error- and now on political complicity in the Hollywood version. The real fault lies in poor human factors in the control system HMI. Billions of dollars have been invested in researching the interactivity of humans with operating equipment- everywhere from NASA and our military to groups of vendors and operating companies. The blowout that happened was potentially avoidable, but engineering mistakes will always be there. The point is once the engineering failed, the ongoing tragedy could have been mitigated- perhaps even avoided. So, while a company may not be complicit in direct actions to prevent the loss of human life, its lack of making access to tools that could have given humans visibility into the incident is disappointing. Like most companies, they are content with working with technology that is decades in arrears because it is "sufficient". When in actuality it is not. ROI is hard to measure for human factors until the holes in the Swiss cheese line up.

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