Chris McIntyre is an unemployed, middle-aged truck driver in Alaska. He has no formal engineering training, is in relatively poor health, and is nearly down to his last dime. In short, he is an unlikely hero. So when he contacted me several months ago with a fantastic tale about designing a device and capping technique which was eerily similar to the method ultimately used by British Petroleum to cap the Macondo Well after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, explosion, sinking and subsequent catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I was – skeptical.
Others had tried to fleece the oil major after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. Various schemers, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen boasted of turning over their magic elixirs to the company with claims that their designs would stop the “well from hell” as it was later called in court testimony.
As a student of this sordid disaster, it was going to take some convincing that Chris McIntyre was not just another in a long line of quacks. Over a period of months we corresponded. First through a surrogate, and then after countless personal calls with Chris, I began to consider the possibility that he was for real. Last month I agreed to fly to Alaska to meet with Chris and his attorney, Phillip Weidner. Keep in mind that a Floridian does not take a visit to Anchorage in February lightly. I am glad I made the trip.
I spent 48 hours with Chris and Phil. As we pored through trial transcripts, media reports, email records, engineering schematics and all manner of obtuse documentation, it became clear to me that Chris McIntyre deserves to have his case heard by a jury. Unfortunately, unless a federal appeals court agrees, he may never see the inside of the courtroom.
In 2013, at the time proceeding “pro se” (meaning without an attorney – bad idea), Chris filed a lawsuit against British Petroleum, in which he alleged that the company stole his multi-billion dollar idea for controlling the blown out well beneath the Deepwater Horizon. In the filing Chris maintained that it was he who first conceived of and delivered the design to BP for the device and method that the company ultimately used to successfully stop the flow and end the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Unfortunately for Chris, his case was dismissed on the technicality that his design “did not confer a benefit” upon BP. We believe that decision is wholly incorrect, as his ventable valve design, with its unique, new and novel connection at the flex joint flange above the LMRP (more on that below and in Part II), had never before been contemplated in the industry. In fact, it was Chris’ design that allowed BP to save billions in Clean Water Act fines by capping the well much sooner than it otherwise would have. Worse, BP is now attempting to patent the design so that it – and not Chris – can profit by selling the device to other oil companies.
At bottom though, the lower court never reached the issue of who actually came up with the design in the first place. I believe Chris did, and we are asking the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to overturn the dismissal so that a jury can see the evidence, which includes the emails Chris sent to BP describing his design and its unique connection point.
When the Deepwater Horizon rig sank on April 22, 2010, it came crashing down upon a subsea complex of pipes, tubes and devices employed to drill and collect oil at depth. One critical tool was the blowout preventer or BOP. Without getting too far into the technical weeds, a BOP has two key components – an upper and lower section – which are married together through a hydraulic connection. When a BOP fails to do its job – i.e., prevent a blowout and subsequent spill – the top section can be removed at the hydraulic connection and a new, presumably properly functioning BOP, can be hydraulically attached and remotely activated to shut in the well. Usually.
The problem in the Deepwater Horizon case was that during the massive rig’s mile long descent to the bottom, it damaged the BOP’s very fragile hydraulic connection when it struck the ocean floor. The fear was that any attempt to remove the malfunctioning upper section and replace it with a new BOP might fail if the seal was compromised and the upper section did not seat properly at the hydraulic connection. If the seal was damaged, and the upper section was removed, it would prevent any attempt at a “do over” should things go south for any reason. There would simply be no way to reconnect for a second bite at the apple. BP would be left with a gaping hole in a pipe with no hope of plugging it.
In short, it was determined that the conventional installation of a new BOP at the hydraulic connection point was simply too risky, only to be undertaken as a last ditch Hail Mary if all else failed. As such, business as usual was out the door, and a new solution was desperately needed.
Enter Chris McIntyre
Although not formally schooled in subsea blowout prevention, Chris spent years servicing the oilfields on Alaska’s Northern Slope through his trucking company, McIntyre Enterprises. There he proved himself a capable, in fact indispensable, resource. His practical knowledge was unsurpassed. His work ethic unquestioned. In the oilfield, McIntyre was in his element.
In early May 2010, just days after the Deepwater Horizon sank, BP put out a call to the public for help. Any and all ideas were welcome – in fact “outside of the box thinking” was encouraged. Chris answered the call.
On May 14, 2010, Chris McIntyre, understanding the peril of attempting to remove and subsequently install a new BOP at the hydraulic connection (“What if you can’t get the new BOP to seat properly once the old one was removed?” – he thought), suggested an unorthodox approach – one that according to BP’s own drilling experts had never been contemplated by anyone in the industry before.
Chris emailed BP the design for a connection of a riser (really just a long tube) to something called the “flex joint flange,” which is above the LMRP. Such a connection point, on top of the LMRP, was not typical, in fact it was unprecedented. The riser would then run from that location up to a valve which could be installed in an open position and gradually closed in order to maintain safe pressures (as you do not want to blow out your new tube device or worse, the sea floor, in the event well integrity was compromised). Oil could then be routed to the surface where waiting ships would collect the mess.
Even better, if the device could hold the pressures, one could incrementally close the valve, slowly reducing the flow of oil until it stopped altogether.
In fact, this is what BP did.
BP Saved Billions
Using a design undeniably similar to Chris’, BP was able to stop the leak weeks before it otherwise would have. As such, Chris’ design saved BP billions in Clean Water Act fines which could exceed $4,000 per barrel, per day. With flow rates approaching 100,000 barrels per day, each day BP’s oil did not spill into the Gulf the company saved over $400 million.
Chris’ invention literally saved BP tens of billion of dollars. His unique and novel approach of attaching the riser and capping mechanism to the “flex joint flange” above the LMRP was completely unorthodox, yet it was the only idea that worked.
Thanks, We’ll Take It From Here
What did BP do? It promptly filed for patent protection of a design very similar to the one Chris McIntyre gave to them. To this day the company has refused to acknowledge the very real possibility that Chris, and not its team of professional engineers and scientists, came up with the design before they did, thus saving the day in the Gulf.
BP maintains that its people conjured up the same solution a few days before Chris did. Certainly a convenient position for the company to take. Never mind that an expert hired by BP filed a report during the trial in which he maintained that no traditional engineer worth his salt would have ever conceived of connecting a riser at the flex joint above the LMRP like Chris did (“The traditional method of of connecting … uses hydraulic connectors … the engineering work required to connect to the flex joint [Chris’ idea] would not have been anticipated…” – Report, Page 24.) In our opinion, only an outside-of-the-box-thinking layperson could come up with such a solution.
Yet today BP says that the very engineers who the company’s own witness claimed would never suggest connecting a riser to the flex joint flange on top of the LMRP now say they did? And what to make of the fact that the device that was ultimately built and deployed to save the Gulf had dimensions that, while not critical to the device’s functionality, were nevertheless very similar to Chris’? The smoking gun?
These are all questions that should be left to a jury. Chris is ready and willing to face one. Is BP?
The case is Christopher McIntyre v. BP Exploration and Production, et al., Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Docket #: 15-35234.
Read: Part II
As a plaintiff attorney, Tom Young has been at the forefront of some of the Nation's worst disasters. In 2015, he was judicially appointed to represent over 200,000 plaintiffs in an allocation proceeding involving a $1.24 billion settlement with Deepwater Horizon contractor Halliburton and rig owner Transocean. Currently, he's focused on representing numerous communities across the country that have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic and are now seeking damages from drug manufacturers and distributors.