New evidence unearthed by investigators shows that in some key moments before the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, BP leaders were disengaged from critical tests and recognized major problems, but they failed to communicate their concerns or take corrective action.
The causes of the BP disaster have been picked over by several investigative bodies for months, including the national Oil Spill Commission and its lead counsel, Fred Bartlit Jr. But a 371-page supplementary report released by Bartlit on Thursday pulls back the curtain even further on what actually went wrong.
“In clear, precise, and unflinching detail, this report lays out the confusion, lack of communication, disorganization, and inattention to crucial safety issues and test results that led to the deaths of 11 men and the largest offshore oil spill in our nation’s history,” said the commission’s co-chairmen, former Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham of Florida and former Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly.
The commission presented its final report to Congress on Jan. 11, but Barlit continued to gather new details and responses to previously unanswered questions, resulting in Thursday’s report. The Justice Department is considering possible criminal charges and might seek to increase civil pollution fines if it determines the spill was the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct, so the greater detail could prove to be significant evidence.
For example, during what might have been the most important test of the Macondo well’s ability to withstand a blowout – the negative pressure test run just hours before the actual accident – the top BP man on the Deepwater Horizon rig attributed disturbing pressure readings to a purported force called the “bladder effect,” something most scientists consider a myth.
When Bob Kaluza defended his interpretation of the pressure readings in an internal e-mail after the accident, Patrick O’Bryan, a BP vice president who was visiting the rig when the test was being conducted, reacted by sending his own e-mail to a colleague: a string of about 400 question marks.
Bartlit’s report alleges that Kaluza broke with industry practice by not being present on the rig floor for important parts of the test and by failing to approve a viscous fluid that was used in the test.
The fluid, called “spacer,” was used at double the normal quantity, and investigators think it might have erroneously produced reassuring readings during part of the negative pressure test.
“Had he been on the rig floor and participating in the test the entire time, Kaluza would have been in a better position to observe several anomalies,” Bartlit’s report states.
After the accident, Kaluza refused to testify before federal investigators, invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. Kaluza’s defense attorney, former federal prosecutor Shaun Clarke, declined to comment.
The report also states that BP leaders had expressed major concerns with the stability of the nitrogen-infused cement that contractor Halliburton was going to use to line the well. The BP officials were so dismayed with the cementing engineer assigned to the Macondo project that they wanted him reassigned.
But instead of insisting on more tests and closer supervision of Jesse Gagliano, the problematic Halliburton engineer, BP’s engineering team basically ignored him.
When Gagliano offered warnings days before the blowout about risks in the design of the well’s lining, the BP engineers scoffed at the computer models Gagliano cited. They then approved the pouring of the cement before receiving results of the stability tests that Gagliano had been running.
When asked why BP didn’t wait for a clear indication of the cement’s stability before using it, BP’s chief investigator, Mark Bly, said: “I think we didn’t appreciate the importance of the foam stability tests.”
In a statement Thursday, BP said it has cooperated fully with the commission and has made major changes to its safety management structure.
“This includes undertaking a comprehensive review of the way BP supervises its contractors,” the BP statement said. “The importance of this review is underscored by (Bartlit’s) report.”
As far back as 2007, a consultant reported having major concerns about the abilities of Halliburton’s technicians and about the poor communication between BP and its main cementing contractor, the Bartlit report says. For years, BP leaders said they had to “work around” Gagliano and complained that he wasn’t “cutting it,” the report says.
Bartlit and others, including BP’s own investigators, are convinced that the natural gas that seeped into the well and caused the well to blow entered through a faulty cement seal at the bottom. Halliburton has disputed that and insists that it had communicated the stability test results to BP before the cement was poured into the well. Bartlit’s report complains that Halliburton didn’t fully cooperate with his investigation.
Halliburton spokeswoman Teresa Wong said the company is still reviewing Bartlit’s findings.
In another noteworthy part of Bartlit’s report, he says even the main mechanical failure in the catastrophe was really a human failure. It appears the blowout preventer stack would not have stopped the disaster even if it had functioned perfectly, because it was activated too late by the rig crew.
For example, the most important function that failed to work on the blowout preventer was its emergency disconnect system, or EDS. If it had activated, even after the blowout, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig could have moved off the well, likely curtailing the rig fire and possibly offering responders a clearer way to later shut off the oil and gas flow at the seafloor.
But by the time the rig’s crew hit control panels to activate the EDS, the gas-fueled explosions had already damaged the cables that would have carried the disconnect message to the device at the bottom of the Gulf, Bartlit’s report says.
In places like Norway and Brazil, rigs are required to have acoustic systems to trigger the disconnect function in an emergency. They can even be activated from another vessel if there’s a massive explosion on the rig. Acoustic capabilities aren’t required in the United States and were not available on the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded.
David Hammer can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3322.