Sunday, February 26, 2017

Deepwater Horizon: Movie not-a-review

Even though this is not a review, but rather a description of how to enjoy a movie through advanced nerditude knowledge, there are some noteworthy points:

- The beginning gives an idea of how much infrastructure supports offshore exploration and the number of different companies and support industries involved. Maybe this will reduce the "nuclear energy needs a lot of additional infrastructure" comments; I'm not optimistic, though, because those comments are born of ignorance and fear.

- Casting is phenomenal and the actors portray accurately the type of worker one finds in dangerous, rough, hard jobs. Props to John Malkovich who plays the quintessential John Malkovich villain, with additional villainy and a southern accent.

- A scene I thought was "too Hollywood," when Wahlberg runs across a burning rig to start the emergency generators and save the day (well, within possible), is actually true. It actually happened, pretty much the way they showed in the movie.

- Kudos for the minimal "character development," a disease that has made many other movies unwatchable. There was some, obviously, but the movie kept to the story and focussed on the main action (first the decisions leading up to the accident, then the evacuation of the rig).

- Instead of "you should really care about this person because they have a family and lost their dog when they were little"-type "character development," we get credible interactions among human beings (which humanize them a lot more than that usual pap) and an accurate depiction of the culture in heavy industry, epitomized by: Wahlberg (about the skipped cement test): "Is that stupid?" Roughneck: "I don't know if that's stupid... but it ain't smart."

- The class demonstration that Wahlberg's daughter is preparing in the kitchen foreshadows the blowout, but it's a bit Hollywood: the complexity of what happened is beyond the movie and in fact the movie has a lot of situations where it's clear the writers decided to move forward without trying to explain what was happening (it's a movie, after all, not a training film for petroleum engineers).

- For all the entertainment value of the movie, and the educational points one may take away from it, there were 11 fatalities, a large number of injuries, and an ecological disaster involved. So, it was nice of the producers to include the final vignettes commemorating the losses.

Now, to the hard nerditude.

I heard of the incident at the Macondo well (that's the correct name for the location, the Deepwater Horizon is the drilling rig) when it happened and for a while the news were, as usual, full of uninformed speculation, name-calling, mentions of Halliburton (always a good villain for certain parts of the population) and greed, and attacks on fossil fuels.

Not being a petroleum engineer, I assumed that (a) everything the media said was either wrong or very wrong; (b) at some point there would be smart and knowledgeable people looking at this; and (c) reports from these smart and knowledgeable people would be put online, as a prelude to the many many many lawsuits to come.

So, when a friend bought the movie (friends with kids are great: they buy movies that I can borrow), I borrowed it and in a moment of extra nerdiness decided to learn something about the Macondo/Deepwater Horizon incident before watching the movie.

I struck gold with Stanford University:

I had a general idea about how drilling works, but the details are quite important. This video was very helpful:

Being an engineer, I went to the reports too. The easiest to read is the report to the President. Having read the report helped situate the movie, since a few of the important events are not in it (some are referred to in passing):

Halliburton simulated a specific cementing plan for the well, but the actual cementing did not follow that plan. In particular, because of the tight window of usable pressures for the cementing, the cementing pipe had to be centered accurately in the hole using more spacers than were actually used. Halliburton isn't mentioned in the movie because (a) they are scary and have lots of lawyers; or (b) they didn't do what they had simulated, on orders from BP, which makes it BP's responsibility.

Schlumberger (Sch-loom-bear-g-heh, which a roustabout calls Schlam-burger to mock Wahlberg's correct pronunciation) was on site to conduct a test of the cement and see if it had set, but as the action on the movie arrives on the rig, the testing team is leaving without running the test (what happened in reality). There's no doubt that the cementing failed, since that's where the oil and gas got into the pipe and eventually the riser to the surface, so in retrospect that test would have saved the rig and well.

Unmentioned in the movie is the large quantity of highly viscous plugging fluid used as a spacer between the cement and the drilling mud, which might have blocked the narrow pipes of the kill line and shown the zero pressure when there was in fact pressure. This is the part in the movie when the writers gave up, decided that giving an impromptu course in deep-water drilling to the audience was not their job, and moved forward into the actual action.

The most unbelievable scene in the movie, when Wahlberg runs across essentially a field of giant exploding flamethrowers (the burning rig) to start the backup diesel generators, is actually true. The rig was all electrically-operated, including the thrusters; without electricity they had no lights, no PA, and lost control of the rig (it moved off-station enough that it pulled the drill string through the blowout preventer and possibly disabled parts of the blowout preventer that would have cut the pipe and sealed the well).

Watching the movie, I found it difficult to believe that Transocean management, especially HR, was okay with 1 woman and 125 men on a 21-day rotation on a drilling rig, but that is apparently accurate (maybe a few more women, but overwhelming majority of people on the rig were men). The potential for lawsuit-inducing behavior just seemed too high.

All in all, I think that the movie was much more fun to watch having read the report and watched the videos beforehand than it would have been otherwise. I would have been thinking about the discrepancy between the drill pipe and kill line pressure and the blowout preventer failure till the end of the movie, so I would have missed the emotional and action-loaded last thirty minutes.

The Wahlberg/Rodriguez jump was all Hollywood, though.

Update April 5, 2017: the problems in the blowout preventer.