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."