In Oil Inquiry, Panel Sees No Single Smoking Gun


HOUSTON — More than four months after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, there appears to be no single smoking gun that implicates one person or company in the disaster. Instead, several missteps and oversights by the crew are being explored by federal investigators as possible triggers of the emergency.

By Friday, nearly all of the main witnesses, from roustabouts to senior vice presidents, had testified before a federal panel that is drafting a report about the lessons learned from the catastrophe, which killed 11 workers. The 75 witnesses had been grilled by an armada of lawyers and government experts about complex engineering procedures and pressed about yellow pod solenoid failures and lower marine riser packages. But the government has released no conclusions, and many questions about the disaster still exist.

“The board wants to get to its conclusions,” said one panel member, Wayne Anderson, a former Federal District Court judge. “It’s a relatively short timetable given the complexity.”

The panel, which has held hearings in New Orleans and Houston, plans to release its report by Jan. 16.

“I don’t think we’ve truly gotten to the root causes,” said Lee Kaplan, a lawyer for Dril-Quip, a company contracted by BP to provide certain equipment in the well. “There are still more questions than answers.”

These are the most important questions that the panel is expected to continue exploring:

¶Who was in charge of the rig, the captain or the offshore installation manager? It seems clear that a work crew would be able to identify its own boss. But witnesses have given conflicting answers about which of two senior officials was in command of the rig during the emergency.

Transocean, the rig’s owner, designates the offshore installation manager as the top official when a rig is connected to an oil well, as was the Deepwater Horizon. But international safety regulations place a captain in charge during a crisis. As panic ensued after the rig caught fire, witnesses have testified, questions emerged about who should activate vital emergency equipment and call to abandon ship. As a chairman of the panel, Capt. Hung Nguyen of the Coast Guard, concluded, “Everybody in charge, nobody in charge.”

¶Did financial pressure compromise safety, especially when BP chose riskier equipment? The longer the drilling of the oil well continued, the more expensive it became. The total cost of the project swelled to $140 million from $96 million as delays ensued. Additionally, by the day of the disaster, BP was 43 days behind schedule, costing the company at least $40 million more.

Amid these setbacks, BP selected riskier and less expensive equipment, including a type of metal casing that would save the company $7 million to $10 million, witnesses say. For the first time, on Thursday, a BP official acknowledged that price mattered in the well’s operation. “Every conversation, every decision has a cost factor,” said David Sims, a vice president.

¶Who was responsible for cementing the well, Halliburton or BP? BP and Halliburton, a contracted company hired to pour cement around the oil well, have pointed fingers at each other about which company was responsible for controversial elements of the plan. Failure of the cement has been identified as one of the possible causes of the oil leak.

¶Who was responsible for making sure that equipment was actually repaired? In the months before the disaster, a series of audits identified hundreds of mechanical problems with the rig. In September 2009, an audit by four BP investigators found nearly 300 conditions in which rig equipment was past its inspection date, including a crucial emergency device called the blowout preventer, which failed to shut down the well as intended on April 20.

BP has said it was the responsibility of Transocean to fix the device and noted that BP officials recommended that the rig suspend operations for five days for repairs. But Transocean witnesses have said BP knew the blowout preventer was past its inspection date and chose to overlook this condition to complete the well.

Work Continues at the Well

WASHINGTON — The leader of the federal response to the oil spill said Friday that efforts to remove drill pipe from the damaged blowout preventer atop BP’s well had been unsuccessful, and that the company would now try to cut the pipe after the preventer had been lifted off the well.

The response leader, Thad W. Allen, a retired Coast Guard admiral, said that on Monday or Tuesday technicians would try to remove the blowout preventer using what he described as a “gentle tug” — about 80,000 pounds of force — to avoid damaging seals at the top of the well.

Once the blowout preventer is removed, it will be replaced by an undamaged one. The replacement must occur before a relief well is used to pump more mud and cement into the once-leaking well.

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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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