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A Times Editorial

Shortcuts preceded oil rig disaster

Even as everyone breathes a sigh of relief that 2.5 million gallons of oil are no longer gushing into the Gulf of Mexico daily, the revelations about what contributed to the Deepwater Horizon disaster keep spewing forth. With each new detail comes more evidence that there was a cascade of errors and bad judgments driven by the desire to do a highly technical, complex and dangerous operation on the cheap.

During recent hearings in Louisiana before federal investigators, the rig's chief electronics technician said the general safety alarm was set to "inhibited" on the day the rig exploded and that it was common practice to keep the alarm disabled so as not to wake sleeping crew members for false alarms. The technician, Mike Williams, said the alarm did not go off as fire swept through the rig, hampering the evacuation.

In testifying before joint hearings into the causes of the disaster conducted last week by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Williams also described how the computer systems had been locking up for months so that there was "no data" at times — what the crew called the "blue screen of death." And he claimed that one of the systems that removed dangerous gas from the drilling shack was placed in "bypass mode."

Testimony of survivors and experts continues to paint a picture of corporate recklessness on the part of Transocean, the owner of the rig, and BP. Transocean, according to a September 2009 audit, had not completed 390 repairs to the rig, including many that were "high priority." It also is accused of not properly maintaining the rig's blowout preventer, the device that is supposed to shut down an unstable well and that catastrophically failed on Deepwater Horizon. Transocean's upkeep of the rig sounds like an experiment in what it could get away with.

Meanwhile, there are a plethora of allegations that BP pushed workers to speed the completion of drilling using cost-cutting methods. The rig rental was costing about $1 million a day and work was 43 days behind schedule. On the day of the explosion, BP managers didn't bother with a time-consuming "cement bond log" test that would have discovered problems in the cementing of the well. The company also did not use 21 "centralizers" to position the well before cementing — the recommended number — and instead used just six. And there are other examples where the company chose the less expensive and more risky option. It may not be that any one of these actions alone led to the blowout, but the combination was deadly.

There are multiple investigations ongoing into the disaster, including a presidential commission co-chaired by former Florida Gov. Bob Graham. A complete picture of what happened may take many more months. But what is already inescapable is that a corporate culture that sacrificed safety for the bottom line contributed to the despoiling of 580 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline, the destruction of livelihoods for an entire region and the death of 11 people. Now the key is to learn from these failings and design a better regulatory system for detecting them and correcting them.

Shortcuts preceded oil rig disaster 07/26/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 26, 2010 6:48pm]
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