The heliport in Houma, La., is much like other airports this time of year. Travelers bustle about the terminal, checking bags and shuffling through metal detectors.
From there, though, they board helicopters and disperse among the legion of offshore rigs and production platforms scattered across the Gulf of Mexico.
This week, the crews heading to the rigs carried some extra baggage: worry.
BP’s settlement of criminal charges related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster was followed by indictments for two rig supervisors, the BP representatives called “company men” who were overseeing drilling operations.
The pair, Don Vidrine and Bob Kaluza, each face up to 199 years in prison, charged with manslaughter for the 11 deaths in the blowout.
They were supervisors, but they were also rig workers, members of a brotherhood that includes everyone who earns a living working on steel platforms miles from shore. Being on the rig forms a kinship that transcends corporate hierarchy, and many workers feel that with the settlement, the government has gone after two of their own.
“It’s unfathomable that folks that were simply following orders can be thrown under the bus in terms of liability,” said David Pritchard, a Houston petroleum engineer and drilling safety expert. “To get to this kind of conclusion is really outrageous.”
Perhaps, as lawyers for the two men contend, Vidrine and Kaluza are convenient scapegoats. Based on all the evidence from multiple investigations, they misinterpreted the results of a critical pressure test and made the call to continue displacing drilling mud in the well. That decision, the government claims, caused the disaster.
But it isn’t that simple. The pressure test was simply the last in a long line of bad decisions that began weeks before the explosion on April 20, 2010.
“There were at least eight reasons to stop work on this well prior to April 20,” said Pritchard, who’s examined the disaster as a member of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group, a team of researchers and industry experts assembled by the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California at Berkeley. “There were a myriad of opportunities to get things right.”
Instead, by charging those at the end of the decision chain, the government is reinforcing a “risk acceptance culture” in which engineers and supervisors onshore are divorced from the consequences of their actions, Pritchard said.
BP has a history of blaming lower-level employees. After its Texas City refinery explosion, it tried to hang the entire disaster on the control room operators.
Accounting for error
One of the lessons of that accident is that good process safety accounts for human error. We know that everyone can make mistakes. If the safety of BP’s well design rested solely on the interpretation of a pressure test, then the company was courting failure from the beginning.
If not, then the blame for the disaster cannot rest solely on Vidrine and Kaluza. They were essentially actors following a script written by BP.
The question for a jury will be whether they acted with criminal intent or simply made a catastrophic mistake. The larger systemic failures within BP will, no doubt, be left to the civil litigation to expose.
Vidrine and Kaluza, among others, had the authority to stop the work, but as a practical matter, rig workers often don’t feel they can buck orders from their superiors.
“If you say no, it’s pretty much a certainty you’ve screwed up your career,” Pritchard said.
As a result, the indictments have sent a chilling message to offshore workers: err on the side of caution and face repercussions; err in judgment and face jail time.
“If I were going to go to the heliport tomorrow, I’d sure as hell be thinking twice about it,” Pritchard said. “If I’m a company man, I wouldn’t want to think my company’s going to throw me under the bus, and if I’m a contractor, I’m wondering how I can get insurance.”
In Houma, the choppers come and go, ferrying crews to and from a job that now carries even greater uncertainty than it did before.
Loren Steffy, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Follow him online at blog.chron.com/lorensteffy, www.facebook.com/LorenSteffypage and twitter.com/lsteffy.