WASHINGTON — In the hours and days before the deadly blowout of BP’s Macondo well, workers made decision after decision that increased risks — but there is no evidence anyone deliberately cut corners to save money, investigators said Monday.
In the first session of a two-day hearing, a presidential investigating commission highlighted a series of possible errors in the hours before the well blew out on April 20, destroying the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 workers and triggering a 5 million barrel Gulf oil spill.
Problems included misinterpreted pressure tests, possibly unstable cement used to seal the well and missed warning signs that gas had breached the well.
Panel investigators said they found no evidence of any conscious decisions by BP officials to trade safety for dollars on the Macondo project.
But, they added, that doesn’t mean people weren’t thinking about the costs of delays in the job, given that the daily price tag was about $1.5 million and the project was about 45 days behind schedule.
“Any time you’re talking about a million and a half dollars a day, money enters in,” said Fred Bartlit, the commission’s chief counsel and lead investigator. But, he said, “I don’t believe people sit there and say, this is really dangerous, but the guys in London will make more money. It’s more complicated than that.”
That finding bucks a common theme on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have speculated that the high cost of drilling — and the millions potentially lost waiting for tests to be conducted and more equipment to be installed — may have prompted BP to make dangerous decisions to speed up work.
For instance, lawmakers have faulted the company for dropping a plan to add 15 more devices called centralizers to secure a section of the pipe-like casing in the middle of the well hole before cement was poured around it. BP officials said they thought the 15 additional centralizers available were the wrong type.
Well design criticized
BP also has been rapped for choosing a well design that relied on a long string of casing that went all the way to the top of the well, rather than a more time-consuming plan using a liner that involves shorter pipe segments.
“There seemed to be a compulsion to get this rig completed in that April 19, April 20 time period,” said commission co-chairman Bob Graham, a former Democratic U.S. senator and Florida governor. As a result of that timeline, he said, “a number of things which might have made the outcome of this quite different were deferred or abandoned.”
The other commission leader, William Reilly, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican President George H.W. Bush, said that he was concerned about “a culture of complacency affecting everything involved with this exercise.”
Ultimately, he said, the Deepwater Horizon explosion was the culmination of “several very human decisions made by competent professionals who missed signals.”
Under questioning later in Monday’s hearing, representatives from BP, rig owner Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton tried to shift blame for key decisions.
Richard Vargo, a Gulf of Mexico region manager for Halliburton, insisted that BP should have used more centralizers to ensure a balanced cement job that would isolate the well from errant oil and gas. He also said a successful cement job can be confirmed only through a test called a cement bond log, and that BP opted not to conduct such a test.
Mark Bly, a BP vice president who led that company’s internal probe, insisted Halliburton should have done a better job flagging its concerns and highlighting “critical” issues.
Transocean’s director of special projects, Bill Ambrose, insisted that BP’s workers — not Transocean’s — were responsible for interpreting the results of a procedure called a negative pressure test used to verify well integrity.
Bartlit said it is unclear why workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig believed the test had been successful, despite repeated pressure spikes that should have indicated problems.
Test wasn’t required
Although negative pressure tests are crucial to evaluating well integrity, federal regulations don’t require them or give guidelines for their interpretation.
At BP’s Macondo well, the negative pressure test was even more crucial, said commission deputy chief counsel Sean Grimsley, because right afterward, the oil company planned to displace heavy drilling muds that helped contain oil and gas in the well with lighter seawater.
Grimsley noted that was a particularly vulnerable time because no other barriers lay between the bottom of the well thousands of feet below the seafloor and the drilling rig on the Gulf surface above.
A major dispute erupted over how runaway oil and gas flowed through the well. Commission investigators concluded, as BP did in its investigation, that the hydrocarbons traveled up the center of the well, rather than in the space between the casing and the sides of the wellbore called the annulus.
But Halliburton’s Vargo insisted that gas flowed through the annulus — which would point to problems with the well design, rather than the company’s cement job.
The company representatives testified voluntarily and weren’t under oath, because the national commission does not have subpoena power.
President Barack Obama created the commission by executive order, but only Congress can authorize it to issue subpoenas. Although the House has twice voted to give subpoena power to the panel, those proposals have stalled in the Senate.
Commission investigators and leaders urged the lame-duck Congress to pass the legislation later this month. The panel is expected to submit its final report in January, but Graham said the commission could ask for more time if it obtained subpoena power.