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Spill Panel: Driven by ‘Compulsion’ to Finish Well, BP’s Procedures Increased Risk

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Chief Counsel Fred Bartlit holds up a piece of a mechanical valve while speaking during a two-day hearing of the National Commission of BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling on Nov. 8, 2010, in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As we noted yesterday, members of the presidential commission investigating BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill made clear that they don’t believe individual BP workers consciously decided to put corporate profit over safety when making decisions regarding the deadly Gulf well.

But it’s unclear what this sweeping assessment means—or, for that matter, how it was reached—given that the facts show that BP’s decisions in designing and completing the well often saved time, saved money, and “introduced additional risk,” in the panel’s own words. 

Since the conclusion of Monday’s hearing, the commission’s chief counsel, Fred Bartlit Jr., complained that the media reached “overarching conclusions” about his presentation. (Bartlit had earlier said, “To date we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety.”) In comments reported today by the Wall Street Journal, he clarified that money may still have had some influence, given the cost of each day’s drilling operations: “Any time you're talking about $1.5 million a day, money enters in.”

In hearings, one of the commission’s co-chairmen, Sen. Bob Graham, had also questioned why BP rushed to complete the well prior to its explosion, according to The Hill.

“There seemed to be a compulsion to get this rig completed,” said Graham, a Florida Democrat. “As a result of that, a number of things that might have made the outcome different were deferred or abandoned.”

Those extra precautions—which would have meant spending more time on a rig that cost BP more than a half-million dollars each day to lease and more than $1 million each day to operate—included crucial tests that were either skipped or interpreted to be successful despite observed abnormalities.

For example, BP skipped a cement bond log that might have identified flaws in the cement job performed by Halliburton. BP, by its own admission, said in its report on the blowout that a cement bond log “might have enabled the BP Macondo well team to identify further mitigation options to address risks.” The panel, however, gave BP a pass for its decision to bypass this step:

“Cement evaluation tools might have identified cementing failure, but most operators would not have run tools at that time,” according to the panel. “They would have relied on the negative pressure test.”

As to that pressure test, the panel noted that despite abnormal results in the test, both BP and Transocean workers “treated [the] negative pressure test as a complete success.”

Bartlit also questioned BP’s decision to move ahead with sealing the well by removing heavy drilling mud that would have helped safeguard against blowouts like the one that triggered the disaster, the Wall Street Journal reported. UC Berkeley engineering professor Bob Bea had previously told “60 Minutes” that removing the mud “expedites the subsequent steps.”

And here’s what we noted yesterday about results from previous hearings regarding BP’s procedures and well design choices:

Lawmakers earlier this summer also flagged the desire to save time and money as a factor in the Gulf disaster. “BP repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk,” the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote in a letterto then-CEO Tony Hayward this June.

The committee also released internal company emails that showed BP employees discussing well design options and noting that the design of the Macondo well “saves lots of time … at least 3 days.” The other option being considered, according to the House committee, would have cost $7 to $10 million more.

On well design, the oil spill panel again gave BP a pass for choosing the cheaper option. The "long string" design in and of itself "is not a problem," Sambhav Sankar, the panel’s deputy chief counsel, said in comments reported by the Journal. It "just requires more attention."

Internal company e-mails, moreover, show that individual employees weighed risk and reward when deciding how to proceed with the well. Take, for instance, this April 16th email from a BP employee, after deciding to go ahead with fewer centralizers than recommended by Halliburton:

“But, who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine and we’ll get a good cement job,” wrote Brett Cocales, a BP drilling engineer. “Guide [another BP official] is right on the risk/reward equation.”

Cocales, asked later about this email in congressional hearings, said he had used the “risk/reward equation” more generally to mean “what are the pros and cons of a decision”—and not in economic terms.

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Deep water drilling is as much an art as science.  Each well presents itself with unique geological and geographical characteristics.  The “data” from one to the next is open to interpretation and screwtinization given the individual features of the well.  It seems the BP team had their eye on the prize and were counting barrels of oil at night instead of sheep.  In doing so, they “molded” the data to fit their desired result instead of objectively weighing the potential risks.
As an engineer it reminds me of how I survived 1st year university; draw the desired curve and then plot the points to fit in nicely.  I’m guessing some of those at BP still subscribe to that methodology.

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