The presidential oil spill commission’s chief investigator today provided new details about what may have caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster — including problems mixing and testing the cement pumped at the Macondo well and a BP reorganization that distracted key personnel working on the project.
Commission Chief Counsel Fred Bartlit described those challenges in a 357-page report released today that expands on the panel’s earlier accounts of the April 20 well blowout with more email exchanges, evidence and analysis.
Commission co-chairmen Bob Graham and William Reilly called it “the most comprehensive, coherent and detailed account of the events leading up to the blowout and explosion (that) lays out the confusion, lack of communication, disorganization and inattention to crucial safety issues and test results that led to the deaths of 11 men and the largest offshore oil spill in our nation’s history.”
The report by Bartlit and his investigative team — including retired Shell Oil geophysicist Richard Sears — zeroes in on potential stability problems with the nitrogen foamed cement slurry that the oilfield services firm Halliburton Co., used to seal BP’s well.
The commission had previously documented concerns about whether the mixture was stable — a potential problem that could cause it to leave vulnerable gaps through which oil and gas could escape. Laboratory tests ordered by the commission on a similar mixture proved unstable, and testing done by Halliburton in the weeks before it was pumped at the Macondo well also revealed problems.
Although Halliburton launched a final test on the cement slurry on April 18, the commission says it remains unclear whether that analysis was completed before workers started pumping the mix at Macondo. And even if the test results were available (as Halliburton says) at 4:14 p.m. on April 19, before the cement was poured, there is no reason to believe Halliburton or BP officials reviewed them.
“Currently available data lead the chief counsel’s team to conclude that Halliburton did not fully review its April 18 foam stability tests before pumping the Macondo cement job,” the report says. Halliburton “has provided neither documentary nor testimonial evidence to show that its personnel actually reviewed that data before pumping the job or communicated it to anyone at BP.”
Bartlit repeatedly complains that Halliburton did not cooperate with the commission’s investigation and “consistently refused to support its lawyers’ assertions with sworn testimony or additional documentation.” Bartlit also suggests that Halliburton’s unwillingness to provide more information about an aspect of the cement slurry testing suggests the data wouldn’t support the company’s arguments to the panel. “Halliburton presumably would not deny this information to the chief counsel if it were favorable to the company,” he concludes.
The commission, which was authorized by President Barack Obama, did not have subpoena power to compel testimony. It relied heavily on voluntary cooperation by witnesses and companies that worked on the Macondo project, as well as on a separate probe by the Interior Department and U.S. Coast Guard.
For the first time, Bartlit’s report singles out concerns with Halliburton’s lead cementing specialist on the project, Jesse Gagliano. For instance, according to Bartlit’s report, BP engineer Brian Morel complained to colleagues that Gagliano had “waited until the last minute as he has done throughout this well” to complete lab tests on the cement foam.
“BP engineers had specific concerns about (Gagliano),” the report said. “Documents show that before the blowout, BP engineers thought Gagliano was not providing quality work and was not cutting it.”
The chief counsel’s report concludes that BP should have kept a closer eye on the cement work done by Halliburton, since it had raised concerns with personnel and work product years beforehand.
An audit BP commissioned on Halliburton’s work on a separate well concluded that the contractor’s foam slurry design had a tendency to stratify. The 2007 audit also found that Halliburton chemists and senior lab technicians “do a very good job of testing cement slurries, but they do not have a lot of experience evaluating data or assisting the engineer on ways to improve the cementing program.”
The chief counsel’s report also sheds new light on the role that a reorganization at BP may have played in the disaster — by exacerbating or causing friction among key personnel and adding confusion during key points in the drilling and well abandonment process.
BP’s reorganization of its exploration business unit, including the team working on Macondo, took place in early April, just weeks before the blowout. Before the overhaul, all of the engineers and operations personnel for a given well reported to the same BP wells manager. After the reorganization, engineering and operations were separated into different groups, so an engineering team leader on a well reported to an engineering manager at BP and, likewise, the wells team leader reported to a wells operations manager.
“The reorganization caused delays and distractions” that were documented by a BP vice president of drilling and completions who asked Gulf of Mexico managers whether the new structure was getting in the way and causing subpar performance in the field.
According to the report, “the reorganization also led to questions about authority and accountability and apparent friction between team leaders.” Workers were unsure what power they had.
According to the report, a BP well team leader once e-mailed a supervisor to say that “everybody wants to do the right thing, but this huge level of paranoia from engineering leadership is driving chaos. … What is my authority? . . . I do not know what I can and can’t do.”
BP and Halliburton did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Bartlit’s report underscores the commission’s earlier Jan. 11 findings that a series of technical failures contributed to the blowout, but all can be traced back to what “an overarching failure of management.”
“The sad fact is that this was an entirely preventable disaster,” Bartlit said in a statement today. “Poor decisions by management were the real cause.”
The commission’s Jan. 11 report recommended that the oil and gas industry create a new self-policing institute and new money and manpower for the government regulators that oversee offshore drilling.
But Republican lawmakers — chiefly Don Young of Alaska — have since complained that the commission failed to identify a single root cause of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and instead pinpointed a series of technical and management failures that contributed to the lethal well blowout. Until an absolute cause is identified, Young has said, it would be irresponsible for Congress to make changes in laws governing offshore drilling.
Lawmakers also have said the Jan. 11 commission report is inadequate because it does not include the results of ongoing testing of the blowout preventer that failed to stop oil and gas from spewing out of the well.
But Bartlit and commission leaders insist that their findings would not change as a result of the BOP analysis — and 11 men still would have died from the explosion even if the BOP had functioned flawlessly — because natural gas was already in the riser pipe by the time it was activated.
Bartlit, a trial lawyer, is a veteran of previous oil drilling investigations. He led a probe of the 1989 Piper Alpha platform explosion that killed 167 people.