Decision-makers were more excited by “sky high” gas flares than they were concerned that a primary safety barrier was gone, leading to an explosive drilling rig blowout that killed five workers near Quinton, according to a federal investigative report released Wednesday.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board released its completed probe of the natural gas inferno that happened an hour after sunrise on Jan. 22, 2018, in Pittsburg County.
Kristen Kulinowski, the board’s interim executive, said the disaster was “completely preventable.” She called on federal and state regulators, as well as the oil and gas industry, to use the findings and recommendations to promote safer operations.
“This was a senseless tragedy that did not need to occur,” Kulinowski said.
Red Mountain Energy, the well’s operator, disputed the CSB report in a statement. Patterson-UTI, the drilling contractor, stated that it doesn’t agree with all of the findings.
In the report, one person told investigators that he or she witnessed mud “erupting” out of a tank that “covered everything” — a sign of “a large degree of gas in the hole.” The person voiced concerns to the driller, mud engineer, geologist and company man that were disregarded.
“I told my night hand to sleep with his clothes on,” the person told investigators.
Another person reported being “on alert” because more than seven hours of flaring represented a red flag. Flaring is the practice of safely burning off gas exiting a well, which happens during “underbalanced operations” when fluid — oil or gas — enters the wellbore.
The person called it a “stupid decision” not to increase the drilling mud’s density — the first line of defense against a potential blowout — to halt the influx of gas from the rock formation.
“We had the safety meeting. I said why don’t we weight up,” that person told investigators, referring to increasing the density of the drilling mud being used. “They said we want to drill underbalanced because it will be faster. They wanted to drill underbalanced.”
The Chemical Safety Board determined the primary barrier, drilling mud, and secondary barrier, human detection, both failed. “Many factors” contributed to the loss of both barriers, including:
• Underbalanced drilling was performed without needed planning, equipment, skills or procedures.
• The day and night drillers turned off the alarm system, contributing to both drillers missing critical indications of the gas influx and an imminent blowout.
• Equipment was in an unusual alignment as the crew removed pipe from the well to replace the drill bit, creating confusion in data interpretation that caused workers to miss gas influx indications.
• A “weighted pill” intended to overbalance the well overnight apparently was miscalculated, which kept the well underbalanced.
• The safety management system in place on the rig wasn’t effective.
The blowout preventer — the final defense against an uncontrolled release of gas — didn’t fully close once activated during the blaze. The CSB determined the failure likely was because hydraulic fluid hoses that allow the equipment to function properly were burned in the fire.
“In addition, the victims had no safe escape route from the driller’s cabin (dog house) once the drilling mud and gas ignited,” the CSB report states. “The workers were effectively trapped once the fire started.”
The five workers died from thermal burn injuries, as well as smoke and soot inhalation. Their remains were found in a room where drilling operations take place on the rig floor. A sixth worker slid down a guy wire — commonly called a “geronimo line” — to escape the burning rig and suffered serious injuries.
Oklahoma City-based Red Mountain is the well’s operator. Patterson-UTI, headquartered in Houston, was the drilling contractor. Both are prominent defendants in lawsuits, and the CSB report lays out the relationships between and responsibilities of each company.
Red Mountain was responsible for developing the well plan, including its design, mud weight and daily drilling and operational decisions.
Patterson-UTI was signed as the independent contractor to perform the drilling operations “under the direction, supervision and control” of Red Mountain. Patterson-UTI was responsible for equipment and crew members. Patterson also was responsible for control of the well under the direction of Red Mountain.
The CSB describes Red Mountain and its contractors as excited for the flaring because it was indicative of a productive gas zone. One employee characterized it as the “best gas” they had seen.
“(Red Mountain Operating) leadership and its contracted representatives including the drilling engineer and company men were more excited about the gas than concerned about the implications that a barrier was lost,” according to the CSB report.
The report contains several text message conversations among “key decision-makers,” including:
• Employee 1: “Dude this flare is blasting off like crazy now. We are off bottom to make a connection and it just shot sky high.” Employee 2: “I’ll take it all day long, hopefully it carries into sunset”
• Employee 5: “I’m having to teach my boys how to drill in gas. Just having a barrel of fun but I like it.”
• Employee 4: “Good deal. We’ll keep [mud weight] in our back pocket.”
Red Mountain President Tony Say said the company is committed to transparency and safety and that its actions were “in accordance with standard industry practice” on the rig near Quinton.
“While we respect the work and authority of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (‘CSB’), the findings and opinions rendered in the June 12, 2019, report are inconsistent with the data we submitted, which demonstrate we were acting in accordance with standard industry practice,” Say wrote in a statement. “On the Pryor Trust well, mud weights were kept in a range which maintained well control at all times; this is the case on all Red Mountain wells.
“The large array of unfortunate human errors identified by the CSB were responsible for this catastrophic event.”
In a statement, Patterson-UTI said it fully cooperated with investigators. The company said it appreciates the professionalism of CSB and shares its goal to improve safety for the industry.
“As part of Patterson-UTI Drilling’s continuous safety improvement process, immediately following the accident we began evaluating what policies, procedures and training could be improved, and we have proactively taken measures designed to prevent an accident like this from ever happening again,” according to the company’s statement. “While Patterson-UTI Drilling does not agree with all of the findings in the report, Patterson-UTI is nevertheless evaluating what additional policies, procedures and training could be implemented to address the key issues raised in the report.”
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