Schmidt: A Butterfield Moment?

Posted May 14, 2010 at 12:01pm

Remember the moment during the Nixon Watergate hearings when Alexander Butterfield, a White House aide, revealed that there was a taping system in place in the president’s office? He revealed what had not been known — that a record had been kept of conversations transpiring in the president’s office during the meltdown after the Watergate break-in and subsequent attempts at a cover-up, which ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

[IMGCAP(1)]Flash-forward from 1973 to 2010.

What if there were a digital record in existence of what transpired on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that led to the blowout and unprecedented environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico?

In fact, there is potentially such a recording, a data stream that is detailed and extensive and could reveal the causes and sequence of the “down hole” events and blowout on April 21.

This data-stream system, called E-Drill and IntelliServ, could provide a detailed real-time record of the blowout. Using advanced sensors and recording, the system communicates via satellite from offshore drilling rigs to an onshore monitoring and response center. According to a trade publication at the time, an initial E-Drill system was installed on the Deepwater Horizon rig by Transocean, the operator of Deepwater Horizon rig in 2002, and has since been monitoring and sending real-time data tracking drilling operations. Transocean was the first offshore deepwater drilling contractor to purchase the system.

The E-Drill/IntelliServ system is a joint project of Transocean, the operator of the Deepwater Horizon, known as the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, and National Oilwell Varco, which bills itself as “the largest U.S. maker of oilfield equipment.” Schlumberger Ltd., “the world’s leading oilfield services company,” according to its corporate profile, is an additional partner in the IntelliServ measurements-while-drilling system. According to the Houston Chronicle, Varco is an amalgamation of two historic energy outfits — National Oilwell and Varco, which merged in 2005 and have acquired more than 150 companies over the past decade, “snowballing,” in the company’s own words, “into a sprawling enterprise that reaches around the world.”

The E-Drill/IntelliServ system provides remote diagnostics, according to the company, “with technicians and engineers monitoring rig activities live/24 hours a day. The staff communicates maintenance, and trouble shooting information to the working rig.” A document states, “one of E-Drill/IntelliServ’s primary objectives is to achieve optimum drilling performance while preventing minor setbacks from escalating into significant events.” The system allows technicians to monitor “proactively more than 5,000 data points.”

The Department of Energy has a role
related to drilling monitoring. The National Energy Technology Laboratory released a report in April documenting its role in developing the IntelliServ system in partnership with National Oilwell Varco. On Monday, President Barack Obama ordered Energy Secretary Steven Chu to take a team of national lab scientists to Houston to look at both causes and solutions to the unprecedented spill, disaster and cleanup. E-Drill/IntelliServ data on servers in Houston and other locations would be a good place to start the investigation, as causes of the blowout and spill remain at issue.

Was the rig wired at the time of the blowout, fire and explosion? Were the data transmitted? Where are the data, who has access to them?
Tuesday’s Senate hearings produced few salient data points among all the finger-pointing and recriminations. Beyond the statements made in front of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it’s time to drill down and take a close look, not at the testimony of the executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton who did their best to spin liability, but at the hard data, information flow and decisions made.

Unconventional and deep-sea drilling have brought increasing risk, as the industry is forced to pursue more difficult, hard-to-reach-and-recover oil and gas.

Recently, unconventional techniques have come into play with the historic acquisition, currently being reviewed by federal regulators, of XTO Energy by Exxon Mobil Corp. The onshore “fracking” methods of extraction employed by XTO offer enhanced production but are highly controversial for their injection of fluids into oil and gas fields.

Offshore, unconventional deep-sea techniques now include the use and injection of “wonder” chemicals such as methyl methacrylate employed by oil-service providers such as Baker Hughes and a panoply of advanced extraction techniques, each with their accompanying risks. The days of easy oil and gas are over.

Now would be a good time to start an up-close inspection of Big Oil and Gas as they work in consort to introduce novel unconventional techniques and keep historically high revenues flowing. What goes on behind closed doors — and in dimly lit, secure server rooms — could use some light as oil flows across the Gulf. Cover-ups and the blame game only go so far.

SJ Schmidt writes on national policy and environmental issues and resides in Clearwater, Fla.