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BP's report on the gulf oil spill spreads blame

BP, the company whose CEO accepted full responsibility for the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, spent four months investigating the cause of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Its findings, released Wednesday, primarily point the finger at the rig's owner, Transocean, and its cement contractor, Halliburton, and not at BP.

Transocean and Halliburton immediately fired back, arguing that the British oil giant should accept the blame for producing a flawed well design, among other problems.

Seeing all the companies playing a blame game is fine with Steve Yerrid, the Tampa lawyer serving as special counsel on the oil spill for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

"Let the wrongdoers all point fingers at each other all they want," he said. "None of them are small players."

The report's importance may be not as an investigative document but as a legal one. BP faces hundreds of lawsuits as well as possible criminal charges over the April 20 explosion that killed 11 and the subsequent spill. Each suit carries the risk of billions in punitive damages and federal fines, so dispersing the blame becomes as important as dispersing the oil, Yerrid explained.

"What you see here is a road map for their approach to the litigation," said Steve Gordon, a Tampa native who's now a maritime attorney in Houston representing seven survivors and the family of one worker killed in the rig explosion. "This is the position they're going to take during the litigation."

"It lays out how they're going to defend themselves," agreed Stuart Smith, a New Orleans attorney representing Florida fishermen suing over the spill. "They're basically going to try to throw Transocean and Halliburton under the bus to save themselves some money."

Associated Press reporters who analyzed the 193-page report found that the words "blame" and "mistake" never appear. "Fault" shows up 20 times, but only once in the same sentence as BP's name.

BP's report says a cement seal poured by Halliburton workers apparently failed. That allowed explosive methane gas to seep up into the well.

"Over a 40-minute period, the Transocean rig crew failed to recognize and act on the influx of hydrocarbons into the well," BP said.

Of eight factors that the report says caused the disaster, BP faulted itself in just one-half of one of the eight. The report acknowledged that BP's engineers misinterpreted a pressure test and failed to respond to warning signs of a blowout — but blamed Transocean's crew for the same failures.

"BP is happy to slice up blame, as long as they get the smallest piece," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chair of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee and Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Two months ago Markey's committee found that the flaws in the cement seal could have been detected by BP. But BP's representatives on the rig opted against conducting a test of the cement job because it would have cost more than $128,000 and taken nine to 12 hours to perform, delaying the start of oil production.

Transocean blasted BP's report, calling it a self-serving attempt to conceal the real cause of the explosion, which it blamed on what it called "BP's fatally flawed well design." And Halliburton's statement put the blame squarely back on BP, contending, "Contractors do not specify well design or make decisions regarding testing procedures as that responsibility lies with the well owner."

BP's chief investigator, Mark Bly, acknowledged to reporters that the report falls far short of a comprehensive probe. He said it was based on the company's data and interviews with mostly BP employees. Halliburton would not allow BP to examine samples of the actual cement used in the well.

Another key piece of evidence, the 450-ton blowout preventer, was just raised from the ocean floor over the Labor Day weekend.

Gordon pointed out that other investigations into the disaster have run into roadblocks. The Coast Guard's inquiry, for instance, is "being frustrated," he said, because key witnesses are refusing to testify or are invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

As for the various congressional inquiries, he said, "Congress kind of moves from fiasco to fiasco," so there's no telling whether those will produce any findings or simply peter out as the media's interest in the subject wanes.

And with the Justice Department investigation into what happened, he said, "you have to clearly show that there's a crime, a violation of a criminal statute — but so far BP and Transocean have done a good job of turning that into shifting sands."

In Wednesday's briefing Bly also seemed to blame bad luck for so much going wrong at one time.

"At the end of the day, all eight of these things had to occur to get from the initiation of this to the end of the accident," Bly told reporters. Still, he said, "we believe that you can drill these wells safely."

Information from the Associated Press and Dow Jones was used in this report.

BP's report on the gulf oil spill spreads blame 09/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 9:04pm]
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