Blunders Abounded Before Gulf Spill, Panel Says


WASHINGTON — The Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an avoidable accident caused by a series of failures and blunders by the companies involved in drilling the well and the government regulators assigned to police them, the presidential panel named to study the accident has concluded.

The companies — BP, Transocean and Halliburton, and several subcontractors working for them — took a series of hazardous and time-saving steps without adequate consideration of the risks involved, the commission reports in a chapter of its final findings, released on Wednesday in advance of the full report, to be published early next week.

The panel also found that company officials had failed to consult with one another on critical decisions and that senior management had paid insufficient attention to the troubled well, which was being drilled a mile under the gulf’s surface.

The commission warned that without major changes, another such accident was likely. “The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again,” it concluded. “Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.”

BP’s Macondo well erupted on April 20, causing an explosion aboard the drilling rig that killed 11 men and led to the spill of nearly five million barrels of oil, some of which still befouls the gulf shoreline.

In a statement on Wednesday, BP noted that the commission had found fault with a number of companies, not only BP, the main owner of the well. BP added that it was taking steps to deal with problems identified by the panel. “Even prior to the conclusion of the commission’s investigation, BP instituted significant changes designed to further strengthen safety and risk management,” the statement said.

Halliburton said in a statement that it had acted at BP’s direction in preparing and injecting cement into the well. It said tests the panel identified as indicating problems with its cement formula were preliminary and did not contribute to the disaster. Halliburton also criticized the commission for what it called selective omissions of exculpatory material it gave to the panel’s staff.

A spokesman for Transocean said that BP, not Transocean, made the major decisions in the hours before the blowout. “Based on the limited information made available to them, the Transocean crew took appropriate actions to gain control of the well,” the spokesman said. “They were well trained and considered to be among the best in the business.”

The seven-member presidential commission, led by Bob Graham, a former Florida senator, and William K. Reilly, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was charged by President Obama last May with finding the root causes of the accident. It is one of several bodies investigating the blowout. The Justice Department is conducting civil and criminal investigations and has sued BP and others, and there is extensive private litigation against the companies as well.

The findings will come as no surprise to the companies or to federal regulators, who say they have already taken steps to address the problems identified by the commission.

“The report released today reflects areas the Interior Department has already identified, acknowledged and spent months working aggressively to reform,” said Kendra Barkoff, the department’s press secretary.

The presidential panel did not try to assign specific blame for a catalog of mistakes and shortcuts taken by the companies and their employees, but it is clear from the report that the major players engaged in highly risky behavior that neither senior management nor government regulators properly oversaw.

The chapter released on Wednesday includes a chart listing nine actions taken by the companies that saved time and money when less risky alternatives were available. These included not installing enough devices to stabilize the well, not waiting for the results of tests on the foam used to seal the well, removing drilling fluid from the riser before a cement plug had been set and ignoring the results of a failed pressure test shortly before the well blew out.

The report did not pin the accident on any one of these mistakes, but rather attributed it to a broader breakdown of communication and a lack of a culture of safety at the companies involved.

“The most significant failure at Macondo — and the clear root cause of the blowout — was a failure of industry management,” the study concluded. “Better management of decision-making processes within BP and other companies, better communication within and between BP and its contractors and effective training of key engineering and rig personnel would have prevented the Macondo incident.”

The panel referred to “compartmentalization” of information within and between companies, like the failure of onshore BP and Halliburton officials to report to rig workers known problems with the cement to be used to seal the well. A similar tendency to hoard critical information was a crucial shortcoming identified by the commission named to look into the causes of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which found that federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies failed to share data that might have identified the attackers.

The panel also took federal offshore drilling regulators to task, for rubber-stamping permits and proposed changes in well design, and for failing to adequately oversee operations on the rig. It said the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) lacked the personnel, training and muscle to do its job and had essentially been captured by the industry it was meant to police.

Offshore oil exploration is by nature risky, the commission concluded. “Notwithstanding these inherent risks, the accident of April 20 was avoidable,” the panel wrote. “It resulted from clear mistakes made in the first instance by BP, Halliburton and Transocean, and by government officials who, relying too much on industry’s assertions of the safety of their operations, failed to create and apply a program of regulatory oversight that would have properly minimized the risk of deepwater drilling.”

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

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