At Oil Spill Commission Hearing, ‘Rough Day’ for BP, Halliburton, Transocean (VIDEO)


The president’s panel on the Gulf oil spill presented its preliminary findings at a hearing in Washington today. Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Seven months after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the lead investigator of the bipartisan commission examining the causes of the incident said there is no evidence those involved made shortcuts on safety to save money.

FRED BARTLIT, chief counsel, National Oil Spill Commission: We see no instance where a decision-making person or group of people sat there, aware of safety risks, aware of costs, and opted to give up safety for costs.

We studied the hell out of this. We welcome anybody that gives us something we have missed, but we don’t see a person or three people sitting there at a table considering safety and cost, and giving up safety for cost. We have not seen that.

KWAME HOLMAN: That conclusion supported BP’s own internal report on the disaster released in September. BP found flaws with contractor Halliburton’s cement job and the maintenance performed by rig owner Transocean Ltd. on critical pieces of equipment. And BP questioned how its employees could have misread a critical pressure test before the blowout.

The bipartisan panel laid out a detailed portrayal of the events leading to the accident at the Macondo well on April 20 that killed 11 workers and unleashed more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

In its preliminary findings today, the commission said BP and Transocean workers misinterpreted the only test they had to determine if cement had properly sealed the bottom of the well. Problems with the cement were a major factor in the gas leak that caused the explosion.

SEAN GRIMSLEY, Attorney, National Oil Spill Commission: The question is why these experienced men out on that rig talked themselves into believing that this was a good test that had established well integrity. You see, none of these men out on that rig want to die. The question is, why did they come to this conclusion? We may never know the answer to that question.

KWAME HOLMAN: The investigators also claimed BP created additional unnecessary risk by removing drilling mud and surface plugs that might have acted as barriers against gas flowing out.

In responding to the panel’s questions, Mark Bly, BP’s chief of safety, disputed that claim.

MARK BLY, executive vice president of Safety and Operational Risk, BP: And the reason that I have taken an exception to it is, it’s making a judgment about a very small change in risk that I think is not – you know, wasn’t a causal factor in this.

KWAME HOLMAN: The investigators said they could not yet reach any conclusions about one critical component of the well, the blowout preventer, or BOP, which serves as the last line of defense against a well going out of control.

For their part, representatives of Transocean, the device’s owner, insisted the enormous set of valves and pipes had functioned properly.

BILL AMBROSE, Director of Special Projects, Transocean: We do believe the BOP worked within its design limits, from the evidence that we have seen so far.

KWAME HOLMAN: The commission holds a second day of hearings tomorrow and is expected to deliver its final report in January.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, for more, we turn now to Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post, who was at today’s hearing. Good to have you with us again.

JOEL ACHENBACH, The Washington Post: Great. Great to be here, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remind us again, Joel, who is on this commission. How were they appointed? Who appointed them? And what was their mission?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, this is William Reilly, a Republican, and Bob Graham, a Democrat, appointed by President Obama to look into this accident, why it happened, and also to come up with plans for offshore drilling.

And the commission has been handicapped. They don’t have the subpoena power. And, nonetheless, they were able to come up with some information and put together this presentation today that was pretty impressive, given that they couldn’t put people under oath.

Some of it was a clip job, as we say in newspapers. And I have done many a clip job in my day, where you take what’s out there in the public sector. It’s already published. And you put it all altogether. They had amazing graphics to show a kind of a primer, you know, a drilling 101 of how this all played out.

And I will just say that you played the clip where Fred Bartlit says at the very beginning of the day, we didn’t find that this was driven by greed. But, otherwise, it was kind of a rough day for all the companies involved, BP, Transocean, and Halliburton, because they made so many clear mistakes in this well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, you used the term festival of errors when you were talking to us a little while ago.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, I mean, it – it was a tragic event. I don’t mean to make light of it. But they did some things that I think a layperson even would say, well, why would you do it that way?

So, for example – and this is something the commission talked about a lot today – BP decided to put the plug, the top cement plug – not the bottom plug, the top plug – unusually deep in this well, and to take the heavy mud out from above that plug and replace it with seawater.

Now, the mud weighs 14 pounds per gallon. The seawater weighs about eight pounds per gallon. And they – so, when they did this, though, they decided to put the plug in after they pulled the mud out. They kind of changed their mind at the last minute and put the plug in – that was their intention – after they displaced the mud. Well, they never put that plug in because the well exploded before they had the chance to do it.

I think many people would say that – that was the wrong order of – that was the wrong sequence to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, on this point, Joel, that BP – that the chief investigator is saying they he didn’t find, they didn’t find that BP had cut safety corners to save money, were they able to prove that in some way?

JOEL ACHENBACH: No. And I think that that is going to be a contentious assertion.

This is a very impressive chief counsel to the commission, Fred Bartlit, a long history of representing major corporations in industrial cases. And I think that some people will say that he just went too easy on BP.

If you look at what the record shows, this is a company that has a culture that does reward people, gives them bonuses for saving money. Secondly, you have a situation in which this well is way past deadline, way over budget, and, arguably, they were rushing.

Time is money in drilling. This – this rig is costing a million-and-a-half dollars a day. I mean, the whole operation, drilling the well, is a million-and-a-half dollars a day. So, are they going to take extra time, you know, run a cement bond log test to see how the cement job went? Are they going to do these extra things, or do they feel pressure to move forward?

So, that’s not the same thing as greed, but I think people will not necessarily agree with Mr. Bartlit’s assertion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where does this investigation go from here and in terms of other investigations?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, I was really surprised today, actually, at a couple of things that came out of the blue that made me think that where it’s going to go is more disputes and more debate about what actually happened.

I thought that we were coming toward a consensus about certain things, such as, where did the gas come up the well? Did it come up the center, the central casing, which is what BP said and what the commission found, too? They think the gas came up the middle.

But Halliburton dropped a bomb today and said, no, we don’t think so. We think it came up the annulus, this sort of ring around the pipe. And that’s – that’s – it sounds like the real technical thing, but it has a lot of implications for liability and whether or not that the well design was wrong.

The other thing that was unusual or surprising was when Transocean said, we think the blowout preventer actually worked. We think that it did seal that pipe. But the force of the well – as I understand their explanation, the force of the well eroded the rubber gaskets or seals around this blind shear ram, as they call it, and that – so it didn’t work – it worked as it was designed to work, but obviously it didn’t work well enough.

And so I think we’re at a moment where even some of the basic questions are still in dispute. And the other thing is, this is going to go on for years with the litigation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we’re going to continue to keep an eye, and we appreciate your keeping an eye on it for us today.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Joel Achenbach, thank you.


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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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