Scientists, drilling experts say BP valued speed over safety in oil rig disaster


A group of 60 scientists and independent offshore drilling experts has challenged a major conclusion by the national Oil Spill Commission, saying that BP did indeed compromise safety in the name of profits when it made certain decisions that precipitated the disastrous BP oil well blowout in April.

]The Deepwater Horizon Study Group, led by noted University of California at Berkeley professor Bob Bea, largely agreed with the recent findings of President Barack Obama’s commission regarding the root causes of the explosions that set off an 87-day oil spill off the Louisiana coast. The experts seconded the idea that the cement that was supposed to seal the well from oil and natural gas failed, most likely at the very bottom, and that rig officials misinterpreted a key pressure test that should have warned them of impending danger.

But Bea and his colleagues took exception with the way the spill commission’s lead investigator, Fred Bartlit Jr., declined to tie BP’s management decisions to an effort to save time and money. During his Nov. 8 presentation of the commission’s preliminary findings, Bartlit repeatedly said there is no “evidence” that anyone on the rig or at BP explicitly made a decision to “do it the cheap way instead of the safe way.”

Bea’s group counters that, even if nobody made that decision consciously, BP has a corporate culture that “was embedded in risk-taking and cost-cutting,” and that played a role in the disaster.

Various investigations of the incident have found that BP was more than a month behind schedule and more than $40 million over budget on the drilling project, and that in the final days the company chose cheaper, faster ways to try to complete the project — by skipping key tests, by changing final steps to close off the well and by using a single tube to line the center of the well instead of a interconnecting series.

Bea and his colleagues said everyone involved in the project could easily see the time and money savings and used a “deeply deficient and pervasively flawed” risk assessment system to justify the shortcuts.

“Perhaps there is no clear-cut ‘evidence’ that someone in BP or in the other organizations in the Macondo well project made a conscious decision to put costs before safety; nevertheless, that misses the point. It is the underlying unconscious mind that governs the actions of an organization and its personnel,” the experts’ report says.

In an interview with The Times-Picayune, Bea said that everyone involved in offshore drilling is susceptible to the unconscious desire to defend the industry. He said that includes Bartlit, who has been criticized for representing Amoco, which later merged into BP, and Bea himself, who started as a roughneck on a Shell rig near New Iberia in 1960 and still professes his love for the oil giant.

But Bea said his position on the risks of offshore drilling has evolved during his seven months leading the study group.

He was upset in early June when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar misused a peer review by him and other engineers to justify a deepwater drilling moratorium that the scientists actually opposed. Bea said he still believes a moratorium could have been targeted to more dangerous projects and to companies with the most troubled safety records, but he now is concerned about a rush to renewed drilling, especially in high-pressure, high-temperature oil fields akin to Macondo.

“You know, I look at my son; he’s in his 50s but I look at him and think of him as still 16,” Bea said. “In the same way, I see the computer screens and mechanized equipment on the rigs and I realize, my God, my son’s not 16, my son’s 55. … We’ve gone through this tremendous technological warp and the industry and government didn’t want to recognize it. We’ve taken on this challenge without really understanding the depth of the challenge.”

The moratorium was lifted Oct. 12, but the federal government has yet to issue a permit to drill a new deepwater well that would have been prohibited by the moratorium. Drilling contractors are concerned that their rigs are under contract for only a few more months; they say major layoffs will be necessary if they can’t get back to deepwater exploration.

Bea said he is worried that the mentality in the industry, even after the BP disaster, assumes a very low failure rate in which only one in 10,000 wells suffers a blowout each year. But failures that fall just short of a massive blowout have been far more prevalent in certain sections of the Gulf where the channels of safe drilling are narrow but the reservoirs of oil are massive, Bea said.

“We’ve got these high-activity reservoirs and, man, have the stakes gone up,” Bea said. “But (oil companies) are still using the reliability calculus that they’ve always been using.”

In its letter to the Oil Spill Commission this week, the Deepwater Horizon Study Group makes some aggressive recommendations for how to move forward with drilling in the Gulf. It suggests that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement should regulate contracts between oil companies and their contractors to ensure that any incentives for reduced time and costs don’t compromise safety. It also recommends that every rig owner be required to appoint a worker safety representative with the authority to stop work if he or she sees any dangers.

The study group also says BOEMRE’s current process of giving “relatively inexperienced inspectors” checklists to police rigs is not sufficient for monitoring the government’s new safety management system, implemented in the wake of the BP disaster.

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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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