Posted on 15 Jun 2010
BP PLC engineers made a series of cost-conscious decisions that ran counter to the advice of key contractors in the days leading up to the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, according to documents released Monday by a congressional panel.
The documents, including internal company emails, accompanied a letter to BP chief executive Tony Hayward, who is set to testify before Congress for the first time Thursday about events leading up to the explosion, which killed 11 and touched off the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
BP officials declined to comment in advance of the hearing.
"Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense," Reps. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) wrote to Mr. Hayward.
The two lawmakers are the top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Many of the problems identified by the committee were first detailed May 27 in a page one story in The Wall Street Journal.
In one case, BP engineers decided on April 16 to use just six so-called "centralizers" to stabilize the well before cementing it, instead of 21 as recommended by contractor Halliburton Corp. according to BP internal emails made public by the panel.
In their letter, the lawmakers say that BP's well team leader, John Guide, "raised objections to the use of the additional centralizers" in an April 16 email released by the panel. "It will take 10 hrs to install them...I do not like this," Mr. Guide wrote.
The lawmakers cited another BP email as an indication that "Mr. Guide's perspective prevailed." A BP official wrote in an April 16 email: "Who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine."
In a separate email, a BP drilling engineer complains to a colleague six days before the explosion that the well "has been [a] nightmare well which has everyone all over the place."
The explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico triggered a spill now estimated at 20,000 to 40,000 barrels a day.
BP has defended its procedures in handling the well, saying it didn't cut corners. Company spokesmen have defended the well's design and said that the operators conducted all necessary tests.
Company officials have also said that a number of other issues, such as the use of six centralizers, were still under internal investigation.
Some documents released by the congressional panel highlight how contractors Halliburton and rig owner Transocean Ltd. are providing investigators with their version of events, which often focus blame on BP.
Congress and the U.S. Justice Department are pursuing parallel investigations of the accident.
The lawmakers' letter cited "five crucial decisions" BP made in designing and completing the well, which may have led to vulnerabilities in the well's design.
"The common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety," the letter says.
Congressional investigators zeroed in on decisions by BP taken when drilling had ended, but work on temporarily shutting the well was still under way.
The most critical decision involved choosing the final piece of pipe for the well.
BP opted for a "long string"—a pipe that runs all the way from the floor of the sea to the bottom of the well.
In an internal BP email from March 30, a BP drilling engineer in Houston told colleagues that this option "saves a good deal of time/money."
But it also created a direct pathway for gas and oil to rise up the backside of the well, a point recognized by a BP internal review from a few days before the well blowout released by the congressional panel.
The other option—a so-called liner tieback—would have taken several days longer and cost more, but would have made the well more secure by adding new barriers to prevent gas from flowing unchecked toward the surface, according to the BP review. The fact that BP chose the cheaper option was first reported by the Journal.
Using a liner would have cost an additional $7 million to $10 million, according to a BP estimate.
While the liner option was costlier, internal BP documents suggest it was the safer choice. "Primary cement job has slightly higher chance" of setting correctly with a liner, notes a BP document from mid-April.
After BP chose the long string, it made other time-saving choices that made the well more dangerous, Mr. Waxman and Mr. Stupak claim in their letter.
Mr. Waxman also highlighted BP's decision not to take 12 hours to completely circulate the heavy drilling fluid in the well, a step that would have allowed them to check if gas was leaking into the well and clean it out.
BP also skipped a test to determine if the cement had properly bonded to the well and rock formations, according to documents from oilfield service firm Schlumberger Ltd., whose crew was sent back to shore hours before the explosion.
While the test would have allowed BP to check if the cement job was adequate and allowed for repairs, it would have taken nine to 12 hours just for the test.
A petroleum engineer advising the congressional committee called the decision not to run a cement bond test "horribly negligent."