BP put profits over safety


In the months since the Macondo well blowout and the subsequent Gulf oil spill, BP executives have rejected assertions that the company’s corporate culture put profits ahead of safety, contributing to the disaster.

But BP’s profits-first philosophy was evident in last week’s testimony from company officials at investigation hearings held by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Management Regulation and Enforcement. New testimony also raised questions about how personnel from BP and rig owner Transocean reacted to the emergency and after the explosion.

U.S. Justice Department investigators, who are examining whether BP and rig personnel broke civil and criminal laws, need to look closely at the lack of diligence suggested by some of the witnesses.

Investigators should particularly examine the testimony from BP engineering team leader Gregg Walz, who defended several decisions he and other BP officials made to use equipment in the well that was less safe than what contractors suggested.

Cementing contractor Halliburton had warned the well needed 21 so-called centralizers, devices used to reduce the risk of gas leaking into the well. But Mr. Walz testified that he felt a safe cement seal could be obtained by simply spreading out six centralizers BP already had. He said he and colleague John Guide thought that would “honor the modeling” from Halliburton.

That’s as wishful — and seemingly irresponsible — as the response another BP engineer had given Halliburton before the disaster, saying that “hopefully the pipe stays centralized due to gravity.”

BP engineers knew they were dealing with a difficult well and that more than 120 workers were at the Deepwater Horizon rig. Why, then, would BP personnel be so seemingly cavalier about a crucial part of the process? Mr. Walz and Mr. Guide may have provided the answer when they said BP employees are graded every year based on how much money they save the company.

There can hardly be a stronger incentive to take shortcuts that compromise safety.

That BP policy may also help explain why Mr. Walz and other BP engineers chose not to run a test to check the well cementing job. The test would have cost an extra $128,000 and taken two days or so, at an operating cost of about $1 million a day.

The Macondo well was already $54 million over budget at that point. A BP executive said cost overruns are not uncommon, suggesting they put no undue financial pressure to take shortcuts. But internal e-mails from BP and previous testimony has made it clear that costs were often in the minds of BP officials as they chose cheaper and less safe options.

BP’s history of placing profits over safety preceded the Macondo disaster. It led to two separate shallow-water accidents in 2002, the near-capsizing of a BP platform in 2005 and fatal explosions at its Texas City refinery that same year. In response, BP changed CEOs and remade its public image as a safer company. But the company clearly failed to reform its management style to really put safety first.

This is not the only troubling observation from the investigatory hearings. Last week’s testimony also raised concerns about the actions of some BP and Transocean employees during the disaster.

The Transocean employee in charge of monitoring the rig’s safety systems, Andrea Fleytas, admitted that she failed to immediately sound alarms when she received warnings of the impending danger. Ms. Fleytas said she saw 10 emergency lights flash on her screen, warning that combustible gas had entered parts of the rig where crews were working. Even though she said she was trained to sound the general alarm any time more than one indicator light flashed, she said she didn’t immediately do so in this case because she hadn’t been trained to deal with that many warnings at one time.

That makes no sense.

If Ms. Fleytas was supposed to sound the alarm when at least two warnings came up, it shouldn’t have mattered that eight more lights were on. BP has estimated that as many as two minutes may have passed between the first warnings and the rig’s explosion, after which Mr. Fleytas finally sounded the alarm. Had she sounded the alarm sooner, the 11 workers who died in the explosion might have had a chance to escape.

This is more than a potentially fatal error by an employee. Transocean made the general alarm a manual function in its rigs, even when a warning came up from more than one area of the rigs, to prevent false alarms. But Transocean and federal regulators need to examine whether the alarm should sound automatically when warnings rise as quickly and from as many areas as they did at the Deepwater Horizon.

Government investigators and regulators need to examine all these issues — and learn from them. After all, fiding out what happened and who is responsible is only part of their task. Implementing measures to prevent another disaster in the future is just as important.

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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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