Journalism in the Public Interest

Déjà-vu? The National Commission Report on BP’s Gulf Disaster Echoes Old Findings

Last May, President Obama established the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling to unravel the circumstances that led to the April 20, 2010 disaster in the Gulf. A sneak-peek chapter made public on Wednesday didn’t actually conclude anything new.


Chapter excerpt from a report by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

Last May President Obama established the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling to unravel the circumstances that led to the April 20, 2010 disaster in the Gulf. Hundreds of hours of study and nearly three quarters of a year later, the commission has reached its conclusion. The full report will be released on Jan. 11, and it is expected to be damning. But the sneak-peek chapter made public on Wednesday—which levied harsh criticism in the starkest and most official terms yet—didn’t actually conclude anything new.

In fact, while the wording might have seemed spectacular and quotable in the present moment, reading the 48-page chapter was more like déjà-vu. It was packed with blunt criticisms that were refreshing after months of rhetoric about what really happened in America’s southern waters. But hadn’t we read this before?

Related story: Oil-Spill Panel Co-Chair: Others Implicated, But BP ‘Centrally Responsible’

It turns out the report—at least the language dedicated to the disaster’s most prominent miscreant, BP—echoes both public and private analysis done after a series of BP accidents, small and large, over the last decade. It also reaches strikingly similar overall conclusions. These likenesses indicate that BP’s most significant cultural deficiency is not necessarily its now well-documented lax oversight of safety, anemic risk planning and poor communication, but the corporation’s institutional inability to learn from its mistakes.

Here are just a few items that jumped out from our close reading:

From the 2011 National Commission report, following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig and the subsequent oil spill:

“The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again. Rather, the root causes are systemic.”

“Most of the mistakes and oversights at Macondo can be traced back to a single overarching failure—a failure of management. … BP’s management process did not adequately identify or address risks created by late changes to well design and procedures. BP did not have adequate controls in place to ensure that key decisions in the months leading up to the blowout were safe or sound from an engineering perspective.”

“Information appears to have been excessively compartmentalized at Macondo as a result of poor communication. BP did not share important information with its contractors, or sometimes internally even with members of its own team. … Individuals often found themselves making critical decisions without a full appreciation for the context in which they were being made (or even without recognition that the decisions were critical).”

“Decision-making processes at Macondo did not adequately ensure that personnel fully considered the risks created by time- and money-saving decisions. … There is nothing inherently wrong with choosing a less-costly or less-time consuming alternative—as long as it is proven to be equally safe. The problem is that, at least in regard to BP’s Macondo team, there appears to have been no formal system for ensuring that alternative procedures were in fact equally safe.”

“None of BP’s decisions … appear to have been subject to a comprehensive and systematic risk-analysis, peer review, or management change of process.”

From the 2007 reports from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which also refers to “systemic failures,” and from the BP-sponsored review led by former Secretary of State James Baker following the 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery, which killed 15 people.

“The panel found instances of a lack of operating discipline, toleration of serious deviations from safe operating practices, and apparent complacency toward serious process safety risk.” (Baker Panel)

“BP did not take effective steps to stem the growing risk of a catastrophic event. … Supervisors and operators poorly communicated critical information regarding the startup during the shift turnover; BP did not have a shift turnover communication requirement for its operations staff. … These lapses in communication were the result of BP management’s lack of emphasis on the importance of communication. BP had no policy for effective shift communication.” (CSB)

“Cost cutting, failure to invest and production pressures from BP Group executive managers impaired process safety at Texas City.” (CSB)

From the 2003 report from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency following a series of accidents and fires at BP’s huge refinery in Grangemouth, Scotland, in 2000.

The “incidents would not have occurred if BP’s high standards and policies and procedures been followed consistently across the complex.” (Sic)

“The tendency was to place relatively high emphasis on short-term benefits of cost and speed and to be readier to make compromises over longer term issues like plant reliability. Management was perceived by technicians as hurried, and managers expressed similar concerns about technicians.”

“The company did not adequately measure the major accident hazard potential. … BP did not apply the required degree of expertise to some key technical tasks and had no overall plan as to what resources of technically competent people were required to manage the major accident hazards effectively.”

“Control of major accident hazards requires a specific focus on process safety management over and above conventional safety management. … The investigation also found that there was a more optimistic perception of safety performance than might be borne out.”

There seems to be a correlation; the easier it is to make money in a particular arena, the more often you’ll find corrupt management practices.

E.g., Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Banking…

I would note that there seems to be an ancillary rule:  If the industry is noted for receiving punishments that are in reality multimillion - even multibillion - dollar paydays for short periods of incarceration, the corruption level soars. 

Perhaps the BOEM, the BSEE, the ONRR, and the SEC might consider planting some marijuana or cocaine upon those they ascertain to be culpable and thus assure somewhat more realistic punishment?

Only “somewhat” more, of course…the corruption of the offenders is those aforementioned industries hammers - even destroys - millions and millions more Americans than your typical drug offender’s crimes - but such is the hypocrisy of American law.

I should have added:  Corruption seems to depend upon how good the industry in question is at shielding the very top of the food chain within that industry from responsibility for the actions of that industry.

If the responsible people are allowed to hide behind the insanity of anthropomorphism - treating the corporation itself is a “person” that assumes responsibility for their actions - then corruption becomes as common as kudzu in Georgia.

lolll…that is how I know the conservatives on the Supreme Court are not, in fact, devoted to the interpretation of the Law; rather, they work to subvert it - for the Law is meant to guide human behavior into conformance with the goals that a society sets for itself rather than to shield those who damage a society the most from responsibility for their actions.

It is those Supreme Court conservatives who most visibly work to erect that shield, and in so doing instigate the behavior that so damages our nation.

I watched the hearings during the reports by the technical teams that investigated the events, with particular attention to the leader (director) of the technical investigation.  He appeared to be whitewashing the whole affair - making it sound as if it was just some “mistakes” by otherwise honest brokers who had some communications problems.  Nobody’s fault, really. Just a series of errors; and certainly nobody who wanted to save (or make) money by cutting corners. And he repeated that insistence over and over (as if it was scripted). As far as I’m concerned, the job of the commission could have been turned over to BP with about the same result.

It doesn’t seem to me to be simply “corporate corruption” at fault. I find the public commissions and regulators that are supposed to be investigating and preventing these matters on our behalf are infected with the same type of corruption. A more serious and deeper kind of corruption than just a renegade private business that has to be brought in check.

My own appreciation of the matter is this:  While I think deep water drilling should be banned altogether (the risks and consequences outweigh any advantage); if we are going to continue the practice, the only safety measure I would give any credence to is that before any well punched through to an intended reservoir (or even came close), at least two backup relief wells should be required and in place, to within a short distance of being functional) in the event that these ‘accidents that can never happen’ happen again.  It was the time spent in trying other methods, and especially the time spent drilling the relief wells that turned the whole thing from a nasty accident that would need to be contained, to a major disaster that no one could contain.

If there’s really nothing new, why waste our time on it?  In the old days these reports would “gather dust on the shelves.”  Now they’re posted on ProPub as investigative reporting??

The report is newsworthy simply because it records the findings during this historic time in the Gulf of Mexico..

At least it wasn’t a Texas Joe Barton apology to poor lil BP.

Yes BK, I agree, it is newsworthy, along with our comments - makes it that much more difficult for others to revise history to suit their own comfort and ambitions - The commission report was just such a revision of history, and if we say nothing, it looks to the future as if it was an accurate recording, without objection.  I view it as the equal or worse than the Barton apology to BP - the Commission’s report was intended to put the stamp of approval of science and technical investigators on a falsification of the affair.  Very different than just some greedy politician kissing the ass that feeds him.

red slider—Are you any relation to Rac Slider, the former Hawaii Islander shortstop? Why don’t you use your real name?  You make some good points, tho.

The big news today wasn’t that Feinberg got a hostile reception even with a pair of police guarding the podium. The big news was that a mother of an 11 year old child asked the GCCF claim administrator who was going to help her with the medical bills for her child who is suffering from corexit poisoning.

Did any of the major media raise a flag, CNN, MSNBC, FOX News. not a god damn word. The woman and the rest of the Gulf Coast communities are suffering beyond what is portrayed in the national media.

Ken Feinberg is a BP mouthpiece, and tells everyone if you don’t like what I’m doing go to the coast guard. Yeah he would much rather have tax money pay the BP Claims.

I do not know how anyone cal watch what is going on and not gather round the family with a pocket full of shells after Feinbergs display of idiocy today in MS.

@Marty - eh bro’ - no relation, except maybe I got beaned too many times.  Not real name?  Your suppose, not mine.  And anyway, what for do you care? Got job offer? want to marry me? Need access to my bank account? Only that when name giving I see. eh? :)

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