Oil spill commission examining timing of work on Gulf well


Washington (CNN) – As a presidential commission continues their investigation Tuesday into the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and ensuing oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, the work schedule on the well will be a top concern.

“There seemed to be a compulsion to get this rig completed in that April 19th-April 20th time period,” said Bob Graham, the commission’s co-chairman.

The commission opened two days of new hearings into the disaster on Monday. Graham questioned why the timing was “so central” to managers that they did not examine the well’s cementing job more closely.

“I would hope that tomorrow we get down to the question of just what was driving for a decision on that particular narrow 24 hours,” added Graham, a former U.S. senator and Florida governor.

On Monday, the commission reported that workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon were pushing to complete the well at the heart of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill before the disaster, but no “conscious decision” to cut corners on safety has been discovered.

The undersea gusher erupted with an April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, which was completing a well for the oil giant BP at the time of the blast. The rig sank two days later, taking 11 men to a watery grave and unleashing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

The well was about 45 days behind schedule. And Fred Bartlit, the commission’s chief counsel, said BP’s operating costs for the leased rig were running about $1.5 million per day. Those costs were “overhanging the heads of people on the rigs,” Bartlit said — “but they don’t want their buddies to get killed, or themselves.”

“To date, we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety,” he said.

In its preliminary findings, the commission criticized BP for shifting its plans for capping the completed well. At one point, one of the “company men” on the doomed rig was unaware of changes being planned back on shore, staff attorney Sean Grimsley said.

Mark Bly, BP’s executive vice president for safety, told the commission he and the company “don’t exactly agree” with the findings.

“In our work we went through what turned out to be the eight critical things we thought had contributed causally here,” he said. “We clearly identified the failure to isolate at the bottom of the well and the negative test and, subsequently, the monitoring, so we didn’t see the procedures here as particular to that. We felt they were covered in the other things that we described.”

Still pending are test results on the rig’s blowout preventer, the massive fail-safe device that was supposed to shut down the well in case emergency. Federal authorities took control of the preventer in September and have turned it over to a Norwegian engineering firm to analyze the device “from soup to nuts,” Bartlit said.

BP, rig owner Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton have pointed fingers at each other since the rig sank. As the well’s owner, BP was responsible for capping the ruptured well and cleaning up the more than 200 million gallons of oil that spilled. The well was sealed temporarily in mid-July and capped permanently on September 19.

The commission’s final report is due January 11. Investigations are also under way by the Justice Department, several congressional committees and a joint Coast Guard-Interior Department board.

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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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