Oil spill commission hears conflicting opinions on whether Deepwater Horizon shutdown was a rush job


Early in Tuesday’s daylong hearing of the national oil spill commission, a drilling expert advising the commission offered compelling testimony about the hyper-competitive, “get ‘er done” ethos of the oil industry, and how BP’s haste to get the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to its next job might have led to some risky choices leading up to the worst oil disaster in American history.

But, by day’s end, the commission’s general counsel, Fred Bartlit, strode forth to knock down the claims of Steve Lewis, advanced drilling technology implementation engineer with Seldovia Marine Services, that seemed to suggest that BPs temporary abandonment of the Macondo well had been a rush job with disastrous consequences.

“Turns out we have more information than Mr. Lewis does on that. We are all over that particular issue,” said Bartlit, impeaching the most sensational testimony of the man who only a few hours earlier had appeared to be the star witness before the commission looking into the causes of the disaster.

“As it stands today, it does not appear to us that there was a rush to get to another lease, but we’re pursuing it, driving it to earth, boring in on these guys, getting all the answers we can,” said Bartlit, a gruff trial lawyer whom Commission Co-Chair William Reilly has described as “John Wayne in pinstripes,” and who was trial counsel in Florida to former President Bush in Bush v. Gore.

Lewis was one of five industry experts, including John Rogers Smith and Darryl Bourgoyne, both professors of petroleum engineering at LSU, who in their testimony Tuesday described BP’s temporary abandonment procedures outside industry norms that left the well dangerously “under-balanced.” The included a dubious cement job and BP’s apparent misreading of a negative pressure test in the hours before the explosion.

The experts said that BP did not properly conduct the negative pressure test to determine whether the cement job had taken properly, and then misread the results.

Properly understood, Burgoyne said, “it demonstrated that the well could flow.” Furthermore, it appeared that the BP “company man” on the rig failed to call the home office to report the result and seek advice, which the experts also said was outside what they would consider normal industry practice.

Former Florida Senator and Governor Bob Graham, the commission’s co-chair, has been particularly eager to find out why BP seemed in such a hurry to finish the job at the Macondo well. It appeared unwilling, for example, to wait until it could procure the stabilizing centralizers it wanted, equipment that investigators say may or may not have already been on the rig.

Lewis attempted to place BP’s actions in context.

“We’re very competitive. Drillers drill against each other. We want to be the fastest, best driller there is,” he explained. “None of these guys made this conscious decision that, ‘OK I’m going to do this because it’s faster, but it’s not as safe.’ I don’t believe they did that. But the overall impetus to make progress and to, in some cases of design and execution, choose a route that was quicker, that involved fewer steps.”

“So I can’t tell you why they continued step after step after step to miss the point, to not go into high alert. To not go, shut her down; we don’t know what’s going on here,” said Lewis. “But I can tell you that there is continuous pressure to move forward, to make progress, to get’er done.”

But, in the case of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Lewis said there may have been a more specific impetus to quickly finish the overdue project and move the Transocean rig to its next BP assignment.

“I know that there was pressure on this group of people to get done and move on. I have seen internal BP communication at senior management level inquiring as to whether or not the well was going to be done in time, whether or not the rig would be in time,” said Lewis. “They had commitments to wells — regulatory commitments that were required to maintain in one case, a viable lease that required well work. The rig was needed on those wells to protect the assets of that other lease.”

But, by late afternoon, Bartlit was debunking that theory, and the commission staff was providing reporters with a three-page letter that BP wrote the federal Minerals Management Service, dated April 19, the day before the accident, in which they asked to postpone by 38 days — until June 6 — the spud date for the rig’s next assignment at the Kaskida well. It was the type of request that MMS, the regulatory body that has since been reorganized in the wake of the accident, would regularly grant.

After attempting to keep Lewis’ remarks from making the headlines out of the second of the commission’s two days of hearings this week, Bartlit then launched into a critique of some of the headlines emanating form the first day of the hearings, which focused on comments he made that he said were misconstrued.

“I said yesterday, at least eight times, we have seen no evidence of any decision in which a person or a group of people put safety on one side of the scale and money on the other side and consciously, in their head, chose money over safety,” said Bartlit, addressing the reporters in the back of the large room in the Grand Hyatt where the commission was meeting.

“This is a relatively modest observation,” he said. But, he complained, “a bunch of the newspapers said ‘commission says BP didn’t ever do anything for money.’ I didn’t … never said that, guys.”

In any case, Graham and Reilly were at pains Tuesday to make plain that no one was suggesting that corners may not have been cut to save time and money, with tragic results.

“If the theory is that people whose lives are at risk are going to make decisions that give safety the highest priority, that is a persuasive argument until you find out that a lot of the more important risks vs. profit judgments are not being made by people on the rigs, but by people at offices back at home base,” said Graham, at a midday press conference at which he said the commission had heard “instance after instance where the most significant decisions were not made by people whose lives were going to be ultimately affected by the decisions.”

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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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