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Special panel says BP did not put money over safety on Deep Horizon rig

WASHINGTON — The BP oil rig explosion and spill wasn't about anyone purposely trading money for safety, investigators on a special presidential commission said Monday. Instead it was more about seemingly acceptable risks adding up to disaster.

Investigators at the commission's hearing outlined more than a dozen decisions that at the time seemed questionable but also explainable. There was no evidence of a conscious decision on the BP rig to do things on the cheap at the expense of safety, investigators stressed several times. Likewise, representatives of the companies involved in the disaster denied corners were cut because of cost.

Critics are balking at what they see as something close a free pass for BP's history of cost cutting. Commission officials say they aren't excusing BP, but pointing out there was no clear single decision that came down solely to money.

"Anytime you are talking about a million and a half dollars a day, money enters in. All I am saying is human beings did not sit there and sell safety down the river for dollars on the rig that night," commission chief attorney Fred H. Bartlit Jr. said.

That doesn't mean that a general culture of cost cutting wasn't an issue, added commission co-chairman Bob Graham, former Florida senator and governor. But Bartlit said his job wasn't to look at BP's safety record.

"Organizational culture is central and there needs to be a commitment, a real commitment, to safety from the highest levels on down," panel co-chairman William K. Reilly said.

Reilly said questionable decisions were key contributors to last spring's disaster. Halliburton, which had the crucial job of cementing the well, was on the hot seat as much as BP on Monday. And the commission still hasn't dealt with the blowout preventer, a key instrument, because it is still being examined.

Bartlit, the panel's chief investigator, revealed last month that testing on cement mixtures similar to those used in the well showed the formula was unstable before the blowout, but BP and Halliburton used it anyway.

So far, the first nonpolitical and independent inquiry into the April 20 rig failure — which killed 11 workers and dumped 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — is echoing investigations into past technological disasters. All sorts of small decisions become a cascade of failures.

Bartlit and commission members said their investigation was hampered by the lack of subpoena power. Graham said Monday that he would ask Congress to reconsider granting the panel subpoena power.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who led a congressional investigation into the accident, said the company had consistently taken shortcuts to save money. "When the culture of a company favors risk-taking and cutting corners above other concerns, systemic failures like this oil spill disaster result...," Markey said. "What is fully evident, from BP's pipeline spill in Alaska and the Texas city refinery disaster, to the Deepwater Horizon well failure, is that BP has a long and sordid history of cutting costs and pushing the limits in search of higher profits."

Findings

. Blowout path: Flammable natural gas flowed up through the center of the well, rather than between the well casing and the well bore. BP's internal investigation came to the same conclusion, but cement contractor Halliburton contends a flawed BP well design allowed gas to escape.

. Cement: Laboratory tests of the nitrogen-injected foam cement used in BP's well more than a month before it was pumped indicated stability problems. This should have prompted a redesign of the mix. Instead, the slurry was approved and failed to provide a full seal at the bottom of the well. While cement evaluation tools might have flagged problems, most operators would not have run the tools at this stage.

. Negative pressure test: On the night of the accident, BP and Transocean workers on the rig misinterpreted the results of this important test, which clearly showed the cement job was allowing gas to leak into the well.

. Data monitoring: It's unclear whether real-time well data, designed to detect dangerous well conditions, was being monitored when crews were replacing heavy drilling muds with lighter seawater.

. Response: Once the rig crew recognized the surge of gas, several actions might have prevented or delayed the explosion and sealed off the well. These included diverting the gas overboard rather than venting through a device not equipped to handle the surge.

. Cost considerations: No evidence so far suggests any deliberate decisions to sacrifice safety concerns to save money, as BP's critics often have charged.

Recommendations

. Create federal mandates requiring negative pressure tests and standards for interpreting them.

. Require active monitoring of real-time well data, even when drilling isn't under way.

. When uncontrolled gas is detected in well, divert it overboard rather than through venting equipment on the rig.

Special panel says BP did not put money over safety on Deep Horizon rig 11/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:20pm]

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