Gulf Spill Linked to BP’s Lack of ‘Discipline’


An “insufficient consideration of risk” and “a lack of operating discipline” by oil giant BP PLC contributed to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, according to a report due for public release Wednesday from a team of technical experts.

The report from the National Academy of Engineering represents the most comprehensive examination so far of the causes of the disaster. The panel’s interim report reaches few firm conclusions, repeatedly saying that possible causes require further investigation.

Nonetheless, its tone is sharply critical of the companies involved, especially BP, which owned the troubled well that exploded on April 20. Eleven rig workers died in the accident.

The panel also criticizes regulators and the broader industry, according to a copy of the report viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked the academy in May to probe the Gulf disaster, saying he wanted “a set of fresh eyes on the issues surrounding” the incident and an independent, science-based understanding of what happened.

The 15-member panel includes engineers from several major universities and is headed by Donald C. Winter, a former Navy secretary who is an engineering professor at the University of Michigan.

The final report from the academy, a private, non-profit organization that advises the federal government, is due next June.

The report provides little new information on the specific causes of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, instead providing a long list of decisions by BP and other companies that it says may have played a role in the disaster.

Most of the technical issues covered in the report, such as the failure of a crucial cement seal and the misinterpretation of a key pressure test, have been raised by other investigations.

But the panel also identifies non-technical factors that it says likely contributed to the accident. The panel cites off “a lack of management discipline” and a “lack of onboard expertise and of clearly defined responsibilities.”

The report doesn’t attempt to assign blame to individual workers or companies, and it doesn’t directly address one of the key questions raised by Congressional and other investigators: whether BP cut corners to save money. It does say that many of BP’s choices “were likely to result in less cost and less time relative to other options,” and it criticizes the lack of processes to ensure that safety didn’t take a back seat to cost.

In a written statement late Tuesday, the company said “BP shares the National Academy of Engineering/National Research Council Committee’s goal to prevent future accidents and oil spills from offshore drilling operations. We therefore have cooperated with the Committee and will continue to do so as it reviews the issues raised in its interim report. We will reserve further comment until the Committee’s interim report has been released publicly and we have had the opportunity to review it.”

A spokesperson for Halliburton Co.—the Houston-based firm that provided the cement use to seal the well—said the company had not viewed the report and was not prepared to comment.

What Went Wrong: Report’s Conclusions

Among the findings in a interim report by the National Academy of Engineering on the April 20 Gulf oil disaster:

  • It was a critical mistake not to shut down the well despite warnings that the cement job had failed.
  • This decision suggests “an insufficient consideration of risk…”
  • Too many procedures were being run simultaneously.
  • There are questions about “the adequacy of operating knowledge on the part of key personnel.”
  • Many decisions were less expensive and time consuming than other options.

A spokesman for Transocean Ltd., the owner of the rig, pointed to statements by company executive Bill Ambrose at hearings held earlier this month by a different commission. There, Mr. Ambrose defended the training and experience of workers aboard the rig. “With a combined total of roughly 80 years of experience, the men who lost their lives on April 20 were considered to be among the best in the business,” Mr. Ambrose said.

Not all criticism is targeted at BP and its contractors. Industry-wide training standards, the authors conclude, are “relatively minimal” compared to other high-risk industries.

Government regulators, meanwhile, did not have “sufficient in-house expertise and technical capabilities” to evaluate industry safety practices. The development of new regulations, the report says, “lags behind the rapid development of new technologies for deepwater drilling.”

Spokespersons for Mr. Salazar declined to comment. He has said in the past that a major overhaul of the agency that oversees drilling, part of the Interior Department, would improve safety.

The report cautions that it “may not be possible to establish the precise failure mechanism” that led to the blowout. The report says deaths of key witnesses, the sinking of the rig and other obstacles have hindered the panel’s inquiry.

The panel draws no conclusions about why the rig’s blowout preventer failed to shut down the well. The device, now recovered from the Gulf floor, is now being analyzed.

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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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