What your startup can learn from the Deepwater Horizon disaster

Last Thursday night I went to a lecture at the CU engineering school with my friend Nathan Amack (Nate’s a senior in ME at CU).  I always wanted to get the real story on what actually happened during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, not the ecological outcomes and the blame game, but actually what happened.  Unfortunately, mainstream news media does not cover the technical details of disasters like these because, well, the technical details aren’t mainstream.  To me, it was better than a blockbuster action movie.

The Deepwater Horizon is the drilling rig.  It’s actually a ship, and a very new one, with the top technology in the business.  The technology in the oil business is the top technology in the world, better than even most military applications, nothing is like it.  When I was working on the B2 I was building some super high pressure hydraulic systems, 10,000 psi +.  Complaining to some fellow engineers that I could not find any parts from the usual aerospace suppliers, one of them reached into their drawer and pulled out a supply catalogue for oil exploration, and everything I needed was there.  Ok, Back to the Deepwater Horizon, its big.  Take 4 aircraft carriers and strap them side by side, and put a 10 story office building on top, and that’s how big.  And the well was deep; one mile of ocean and two more miles of drilling.  18,000 feet.

The leader of the Congressional committee which investigated the Deepwater Horizon disaster was Donald Winter, a former Secretary of the Navy, President at Northrup Grumman and CEO of TRW.  Mr. Winter was a no BS engineering manager.  I had gotten to know the type when I was at Boeing on larger projects.  The Deepwater Horizon was done drilling oil.  They had struck oil, the oil well is known as the Macondo oil well, and the crew was in the process of sealing the well.  Essentially, you build a big cork out of concrete, by pumping cement into the well, and cap off the well.  You put the cork in and you test to make sure if the cork is going to stay.  The cork was in and the crew was in the middle of testing to see if the cork was going to hold.  Imagine pressing the cork back into a Champaign bottle.  Before you put it back into the fridge you make sure that cork is going to stay in by pressing on it and seeing if it moves any more.  If not, your good.  If it does move, well, you don’t take your finger off or it will pop.  The Deepwater crew too their finger off the cork, the Macondo well popped, and all hell broke loose.