WASHINGTON — Investigators exploring the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reported Monday that underestimates of the amount of oil flowing from the blown-out Macondo well "impeded" attempts by BP and the government to contain the gusher.
The staff of the presidential commission investigating the disaster also cast the government and industry as ill-prepared to tackle a deep-water blowout in reports that provide a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the five-month battle to rein in the runaway well.
"The oil and gas industry was unprepared to respond to a deep-water blowout, and the federal government was similarly unprepared to providing meaningful supervision," said one commission staff report.
But the staff also singled out successes — including BP's "herculean" simultaneous attempts to develop containment strategies and the "critical" intervention of U.S. Geological Survey scientists whose assessment of the well's containment cap persuaded engineers not to abandon it.
The commission authorized by President Barack Obama is on track to release its findings about the cause of the Deepwater Horizon disaster — and what should be done to prevent a repeat — in January. The commission is headed by Bob Graham, a former Florida senator and governor, and former EPA administrator William K. Reilly. In reports Monday, the commission recommends that the government require industry to put new diagnostic tools on blowout preventers and other key devices used at the wellhead "that would provide more information in the case of a blowout."
And the commission staff said oil companies should be able to prove they can contain similar disasters — which wasn't the case on April 20, when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers and unleashing an oil spill that dumped 4.9 million barrels of crude into the gulf.
At the time, BP had no techniques to contain its leaking well other than drilling another relief well to intercept it — a process that was projected to take months. Although BP developed a number of short-term techniques on the fly in the hopes of containing the gusher sooner, several of the attempts were "hindered" by the lack of an accurate estimate of the amount of oil and gas flowing out of the well, the commission said.
In early May, BP believed the flow was 14,000 barrels per day or less, and the government's official estimate was 5,000 barrels a day. Both were far less than the government's now-current estimate of what was actually flowing out of the well in early May: 60,000 barrels daily.
The first major intervention — a 40-foot-tall, 98-ton dome known as the cofferdam — failed to work in early May because methane gas escaping from the well formed buoyant icy hydrates under it.
Another failed attempt to stop the gushing crude — a plan to pump heavy drilling mud into the top of the well in late May — was designed based on the government's official estimate that 5,000 barrels of oil were flowing daily.
That estimate was important, because engineers had already warned the technique was unlikely to succeed if 15,000 or more barrels were flowing daily. The pressure and weight of drilling muds being pumped into the well were not enough to counteract a bigger-than-envisioned gusher.
"If BP had devoted a fraction of the resources it expended on the top kill to obtaining a more accurate early estimate of the flow rate, it might have better focused its efforts on the containment strategies that were more likely to succeed," the commission staff said.
Other complicating factors, were a "lack of reliable diagnostic tools," such as accurate pressure gauges at the wellhead and a lack of adequate disaster planning in the initial design of the well.
The commission reports reveal that an ultimately successful maneuver to stop gushing oil by closing openings in a "capping stack" on the wellhead was almost abandoned out of fears that it would cause a dangerous buildup of pressure and new ruptures in the well.
Government officials and scientists who were worried about an even bigger disaster united behind a plan to open the capping stack on July 15 — just hours after it had stopped the flowing oil for the first time in 87 days.
But Coast Guard Adm. Kevin Cook suggested keeping the stack closed and monitoring pressure readings for another 24 hours — opening a "critical" window for new analysis by government scientists. Working off a cell phone camera's picture of pressure readings sent to him in Menlo Park, Calif., Paul Hsieh (SHAY) of the U.S. Geological Survey ran new modeling that indicated there were no new leaks in the well, even though pressure readings were lower than expected.
Hsieh's swift analysis helped peruade the government's scientific advisers to keep the capping stack closed. It was a pivotal moment, the commission staff said, noting that the decision meant "BP would not have to reopen the stack, and oil had finally stopped leaking from the Macondo well into the gulf."
A second commission report said that the oil industry and the government have not spent the money they promised to improve cleanup equipment and technique for oil spills. Despite billions of dollars in profits, oil companies spend only a few million dollars a year on cleanup technology. The federal government in 2010 spent $7.4 million on oil spill research. In 1993, when adjusted for inflation, the federal government spent $20.3 million on the subject.