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Oil Spill Commission Finds Risks Taken On the Job

Source: WSJ

Posted on 09 Nov 2010

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The lead investigator for a presidential commission said that BP PLC added risk to its ill-fated Gulf of Mexico well by removing a safeguard before fully sealing it in a finding that puts the spotlight on the oil giant's decisions in the fateful final hours before the blast.

Fred Bartlit, chief counsel of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, said at a public presentation, that BP decided to remove heavy drilling mud—a mixture used to keep explosive gas out of the well—before setting a final cement plug.

That meant a crucial backup safety device was never installed, he said. The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20 after gas surged up the well.
Mr. Bartlit said the commission didn't have evidence that BP or workers on the doomed rig made a conscious decision to cut corners to save money.

"I don't believe people sit ·there and say, well, this is really dangerous, but the guys in London will make more money. I don't think they think that way," he said.

Still, money may have been a factor as the cost of operating the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig ran more than $1 million a day, Mr. Bartlit said. "Any time you're talking about $1.5 million a day, money enters in."

BP in its own internal investigation didn't address whether it should have set the cement plug before pulling out the mud. Instead, it focused largely on decisions by rig workers employed by its contractors Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton Co.

But Mr. Bartlit pointed to the removal of the drilling mud as one of numerous questionable judgments made by BP and its contractors in the hours before the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers.

Mr. Bartlit didn't say the decisions were wrong, per se; however, he said, they increased the risk of a blowout and therefore required workers to be especially vigilant. Tragically, though, the workers missed key signs and failed to prevent gas from blowing up the rig.

BP faces billions of dollars in fines and damage claims stemming from the April 20 explosion that sank the Deepwater Horizon rig and touched off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The company has agreed to put $20 billion into a compensation fund for Gulf Coast residents and businesses harmed by the spill.

If Mr. Bartlit's statement that BP didn't deliberately cut corners on safety is reflected in the commission's final report, it could help the British oil giant fight accusations that it was grossly negligent. Evidence or findings of gross negligence could expose BP to larger fines under U.S. environmental laws and increase the risk of a criminal prosecution.

Most of Mr. Bartlit's findings focused on missed signs or opportunities by BP employees or rig workers. But the call to begin removing the mud before the final plug was an active decision made by BP. The decision forced a series of other changes in procedure, sparking confusion and argument aboard the rig on the day of the disaster.

Mark Bly, who led BP's internal investigation, said in the hearing Monday that engineers decided to delay setting the plug to avoid contaminating the cement with drilling mud. But he acknowledged that BP could have set the plug before removing the mud, or else could have used a temporary, mechanical plug, which would have avoided the contamination issue. The plug is designed to prevent gas from escaping up the pipe to the surface.

The decision to begin removing the mud before installing the plug was highlighted in a Page 1 story in The Wall Street Journal on May 11.

The commission's co-chairmen, Bob Graham and William K. Reilly, used Monday's hearing to renew their calls for Congress to give the panel subpoena power to get to the bottom of the many remaining questions about the disaster. Mr. Graham said the hearing "has contributed to our ability hopefully to be persuasive on those who have thus far been reticent to give us that authority."

The issue of whether Congress should give the commission subpoena power has gotten bogged down in a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over the panel's composition. Republicans objected that Mr. Obama put no members on the body with a background in the oil industry, and that several members have long opposed offshore drilling.

But the commission has since taken positions at odds with the White House, for example questioning the administration's moratorium on deepwater drilling.