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Something Smells

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The Halliburton Connection To The Gulf Oil Disaster

By James Donahue

Blowouts and fires happen during oil well exploration. I once worked among the drilling rigs during a discovery of a small oil and gas field at Jonesville, Michigan, and was there when one of the new wells blew and exploded into flame. It was such a hot fire that is scorched the earth for a wide area. We could see the smoke and flames from miles away.

Those were the days when the legendary Paul “Red” Adair was still alive and traveling the world putting out oil well fires and capping runaway well heads. Adair came to Jonesville and snuffed out that blaze. He used fire retardant suits to get close enough to the burning oil and gas fire and charged it with dynamite. The explosion snuffed out the flames and gave Adair’s team time to cap the still red-hot well pipe. 

It was Adair’s team that put out all of the fires in the oil wells in Iraq after the 1991 war. A total of 117 wells were left afire by retreating Iraqi forces.

When underwater drilling was first tried, Adair successfully began capping these wells when they went wild. Among the biggest fires capped were the CATCO offshore fire in 1959, “The Devil’s Cigarette Lighter in the Sahara Desert in 1962, and a giant offshore blaze at Bay Marchand, Louisiana in 1970. He dealt with numerous other floating oil rig fires in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

Modern methods of extinguishing oil well fires include the use of high powered water sprays and Purple K dry chemical, using a gas turbine to blast a fine mist at the fire, and if all else fails, drilling relief wells to redirect the force of the gas and oil and make it easier to extinguish the fire.

Once the fire is out, the well must be capped with great care because even a small spark can reignite it. Adair used brass or bronze fittings to seal the well head because they do not cause sparks.

Unfortunately, men like Red Adair could not last forever. In 1993 he sold the Red Adair Company to Global Industries, Ltd., of Carlyss, Louisiana, a company that specialized in offshore oil and gas drilling platforms and pipeline systems mostly in the Gulf of Mexico. Adair died in 2004, and his system of putting out deep water fires either was forgotten or put on the shelf.

Halliburton Company has now emerged as a major operator on deep water oil rigs. From published reports it appears that Halliburton had developed a system of cementing well heads to help prevent the kind of disaster that occurred on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

One report said Halliburton acknowledged that it had completed the final cementing of the oil well and pipe only 20 hours before the explosion. The timing of the cementing in relation to the blast and the procedure’s history of causing problems is being investigated as a possible cause of the disaster.

A study done in 2007 has shown that cementing was a factor in 18 of 39 well blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico over a 14-year period.

Halliburton was involved in a major blowout on an offshore drilling rig in the Timor Sea, off Australia, in 2009. That rig also caught fire and leaked tens of thousands of barrels of oil for 10 weeks before it was shut down. That disaster still remains under investigation.

Ironically  the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Interior Department considered requiring deep water drilling companies to use a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism as a way of capping a well in the event of this kind of a blowout. Such devices exist but are costly . . . some say up to $500,000. And drilling companies apparently lobbied hard to prevent such a rule. They didn’t want to spend the money.

The Deepwater Horizon rig may have been equipped with such a device. A news report said there was some kind of emergency shut-off system in place but that it failed after the fire caused the entire platform to collapse and sink into the sea.

While reinforcing oil well casing does not prevent a well from blowing out of control, it appears to be part of a complex process of capping deep water well heads.

That the Halliburton Company is somehow involved in the two worst oil well disasters in the last two years does not seem surprising. Trouble has followed the name of this company, especially since the last Bush Administration launched an unprovoked attack on Iraq and brought Halliburton into the fray with it.

Halliburton received multi-billion dollar contracts to provide a wide variety of services for the U.S. military during the fighting and has been the object of numerous controversies including supplying polluted drinking water to soldiers, obtaining no-bid contracts for food services, fuel deliveries, building detention facilities and extinguishing oil well fires and a wide variety of other jobs.

A Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, was implicated in the defective construction of showers for soldiers that were improperly wired. At least one soldier died of electrocution using a KBR manufactured shower. A total of 18 soldiers have died from electrocutions since the war began. KBR has denied wrongdoing.

Some said Halliburton was given preferential treatment by the Bush Administration because of Vice President Dick Cheney’s ties to that company. Cheney was chairman and CEO of Halliburton from 1995 to 2000, and retired when he was appointed to the Vice Presidency.

Halliburton is obviously a very big corporation. It is rated as the world’s second largest oilfield services business with operations in more than 70 countries. It has nearly 300 subsidiaries, affiliates and divisions all over the world.

Halliburton’s headquarters are in two places; Houston, Texas, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. That the current chairman and CEO, David J. Lesar, lives and works in Dubai suggests close business ties with Middle Eastern oil interests.