BP made series of ‘shortcuts’ on oil well, House Democrats say in letter


For the sake of saving time and drilling costs on its ill-fated exploration well, BP took “shortcuts” that led to the oil spill disaster that will end up costing the oil giant billions of dollars in cleanup and compensation costs, according to a letter from two House Democrats who have been leading an investigation of the spill.

The letter lays out five decisions BP took “to speed finishing the well,” which was running “significantly behind schedule,” the lawmakers say. “In effect, it appears that BP repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk,” they said.

Those cost savings seem trivial now in light of the blowout that triggered the oil spill that threatens wildlife and jobs across the Gulf of Mexico. But given the $1 million to $2 million a day it costs to run a drilling rig, they seem to have loomed large at the time.

One of those decisions was to use only six devices for centering the drill pipe in the well hole instead of 21 as initially planned and recommended by Halliburton, a service company hired to put cement between the pipe and wall of the hole. The letter, which includes footnotes to interviews, e-mails and documents, says that Halliburton warned that proceeding could be risky without the full complement of centralizers.

In an e-mail on April 16, a BP official said that “it will take 10 hours to install them . . . I do not like this,” according to the lawmakers’ letter. Later that day, the letter continues, another official recognized the risks but said: “Who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine.”

The letter from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Bart Stupak is addressed to BP chief executive Tony Hayward in advance of hearings Tuesday where several big oil company executives are expected to testify. Based on documents and interviews obtained by the committee, the two lawmakers say that “BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure.”

According to the committee’s investigation so far, those decisions were:

— BP saved $7 million to $10 million using a more risky option for the well casing, or steel tubing. The safer option, known as the liner-tieback option, would have provided more barriers to prevent the flow of natural gas up the space between the steel tubes and the well wall.

— BP failed to install enough devices to center the pipe in the hole, which increased the danger of cracks in the cement surrounding the pipe. The American Petroleum Institute’s recommended practices warn that if the pipe, or casing, is not centered “it is difficult, if not impossible” for the cement to displace the drilling mud on the narrow side of the opening.

— BP decided against a nine- to 12-hour procedure known as a “cement bond log” that would have tested the integrity of the cement. Although BP had a team from Schlumberger, a leading oil services firm, on board the rig, BP sent the team home and told them their services were not needed.

— BP did not fully circulate drilling mud, which would have taken as long as 12 hours. That would have helped detect any pockets of gas, which later shot up the well and exploded on the deck of the drilling rig.

— BP did not secure the connections, or casing hangers, between pipes of different diameters.

The letter says that many of these decisions contradict the advice contained in other BP internal documents, which warned against the dangers of using certain types of pipe. And it reveals that even before the accident, BP engineers were struggling with unusual difficulties. On April 14, BP drilling engineer Brian Morel e-mailed a colleague, Richard Miller, saying “this has been [a] nightmare well which has everyone all over the place.”

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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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