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Reporters Explore Possible Causes for Deepwater Horizon Explosion, Oil Leak

June 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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New reports suggest that BP cut corners on safety in the design of the blown-out oil well in the Gulf. Gwen Ifill talks to two reporters about what investigations are revealing about the oil giant's actions before the rig exploded and the oil leak began.
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GWEN IFILL: We take a closer look now at what may have led to the Deepwater Horizon explosion with two reporters who have been investigating it. Abrahm Lustgarten is a reporter for ProPublica, an independent investigative news service. He’s covering the broader safety record of the company. And James Glanz is with The New York Times. The Times reported today on problems with a blowout preventer and with an internal device known as the blind shear ram that was supposed to cut the pipe and seal off the oil flow, but apparently didn’t.

Jim Glanz, I want to start with you. I’m hoping that you can explain a in a little bit more detail what the blind shear ram is.

JAMES GLANZ, The New York Times: Well, hi, Gwen.

Yes, the blind shear ram is a previously obscure device that is sort of the last finger in the dike when you have an explosion like this. What it’s supposed to do is move across the center of that blowout protector, shear the drill pipe, and then some seals on it. It’s a very strange little device that is supposed to seal off that well and keep the volcano of gas and oil from coming up the well.

And what we found in our piece today is that, as early as 2000 — or 2001, studies showed that, if you had just one of those blind shear rams, you had a real chance that part of the hydraulics feeding it, another obscure part called a shuttle valve, would represent the largest amount of risk, in other words, would be a sort of — the place where things would most likely fail if they did fail.

And we don’t think we found, so to speak, the O-ring or the piece of foam in the shuttle disasters yet. But we do think investigators are beginning to focus on these elements, and that there’s a lot of discussion about other studies recommending that these blowout protectors have two blind shear rams for that very reason.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s — and that’s kind of the question. If this was the last finger in the dike, what were the backup plans? Were there backup plans? Was anybody making sure there were backup plans? And what if it mattered? I mean, is there a record that these kind of blowout preventer accidents can happen?

JAMES GLANZ: We looked at statistics. My colleagues and I looked at statistics that were published by organizations that study this sort of thing. And we found that, of 11 cases looked at closely, in 45 percent, I believe, of those cases, the blowout preventer didn’t actually work as designed.

So, there was real cause for concern, especially in cases where you had just one of those blind shear rams.

GWEN IFILL: So, would redundancy, a second blind shear ram, have made a difference in that number?

JAMES GLANZ: You know, this — it’s early in the investigation of this incident. And I don’t think we know yet whether any arrangement of rams on that blowout preventer would have stopped the explosion.

But what these earlier studies found is that you have a much better chance of stopping the leak and not running into, you know, an obstacle the blind shear ram won’t cut or a hydraulic problem if you have two of these.

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk to Abrahm Lustgarten now. I want — because you have been doing a lot of reporting on BP’s history in this — in this sort of event. Is there any evidence to support that BP has had these kinds of problems before, more so than any other oil company?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN, ProPublica: Well, yes.

First of all, the problems that you have heard about in the oil industry in the last couple of years, major fire and explosion in Texas City, and the oil spill up in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in 2006, it always seems to be BP that is coming to the forefront.

BP — BP has had the major problems. The Project on Government Oversight, by one measure, tallied defenses for corporations that might be worth barring contracts with a company and found that BP had three times as many as, say, a company like Shell. They had about 80 infractions. And a company like Halliburton only had seven.

GWEN IFILL: So, is there a culture at BP that brings this about?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Well, that’s what we have looking at. We started looking into their past actions and trying to see if it had — if it shed any light on what’s happening now in the Gulf.

And we found a very consistent pattern going back 11 years, according to our investigation, where BP, especially up in Alaska, but at operations across the country, fell behind on its maintenance, skipped maintenance in some cases, often to save money, and didn’t encourage feedback from workers, who would serve as a first line of defense in alerting company to problems with its equipment.

When workers did complain or did cite a safety situation or a corroded pipeline, for example, they were often harassed or a message was sent that their complaints weren’t welcome. And, in many cases, they lost their jobs. And this was documented by BP in a series of internal reports consistently in 2000, in 2001, 2004, 2007, and I’m still hearing reports that are very similar today.

GWEN IFILL: So, even if there were problems that were identified, nothing — steps weren’t necessarily taken to stop it from happening again?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Absolutely.

In fact, last week, we got our hands on a 2007 update of a 2001 report. And the 2001 report had been very critical and said that BP had allowed massive backlogs in their maintenance programs for things like air — I’m sorry — gas and fire detection centers, pressure safety valves and things like that.

The 2007 update, which was a survey of 400 workers in Alaska’s North Slope, found that in more than half the case, BP had yet to catch up on its maintenance backlogs or rectify the situations that they considered so dire in 2001.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Glanz, let’s talk about the government’s role in this.

I was struck by a line in your story today, where you quoted Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes as saying that the government had a false sense of security about what these companies were willing to do or were doing to protect against this kind of eventuality.

JAMES GLANZ: Our investigation found a little more nuanced picture of the Interior Department and its Minerals Management Service, the service in charge of this kind of regulation, than we have seen before.

On the one hand, they are commissioning studies that are finding real problems with these blind shear rams, whether they can cut the steel and operate in the conditions that are so harsh in the bottom of the sea, for example. So, they’re doing the right thing you might say on the one hand. On the other hand, they’re very slow to enact regulations that take into account the problems they find.

And then when they — it comes to enforcing those regulations, we found real gaps, a real either reluctance or some sort of crack in the sidewalk where all of these fell through.

GWEN IFILL: But all this against a backdrop — a backdrop of a case in which the industry designed, manufactured and installed all of this equipment, and then apparently there was no oversight to make sure that equipment was working.

JAMES GLANZ: Or not enough.

I mean, there’s a kind of honor system, you might say, that the industry has been under to this point. And a lot of the data that the Minerals Management Service requires comes from industry. So, in a sense, they’re policing themselves. And I think what we have found here is that that is not entirely the best kind of policing.

GWEN IFILL: Abrahm Lustgarten, based on your reporting and what you have found out in tracking this, if there any way to know whether some of this was foreseeable, or was it just something that we have heard the company say, which is, who knew this was going to happen?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Well, like everybody is saying, I think it’s too early to know exactly what happened in the Gulf.

But, the more we do hear, the more little bits of information trickle out, the more it echoes what we saw in the past. You hear about the lack of fire and gas detection sensors on the Deepwater Horizon, a mechanism that might have prevented the fire that eventually led to the sinking of the platform.

That’s echoed in those 2001 reports and in a lot of the other documents that we have seen. So, when you ask if the problem was preventable or if it was foreseeable, and you look at such a lengthy and deep pattern of having raised concerns about these very systems and in some cases the exact same equipment, yes, it strongly implies that had these — you know, had these systems been taken care of in the first place, or had criticism been answered 10 years ago or five years ago, that accidents in the Gulf could very well have been prevented.

GWEN IFILL: And, Jim Glanz, we know, of course, that we’re still not — we’re maybe at the beginning of this investigation, rather than at the end. But is there any way of knowing whether as this is — as we’re peeling back the onion on this, there’s a plan B that’s about to kick in, that people look at the mistakes that were made and they’re beginning to take action?

JAMES GLANZ: I think that’s the gnarliest point here, is that you can look at making a better blowout protector — or preventer, but if it doesn’t work, what do you do?

And it’s a little bit like the Titanic. You know, it was the ship that couldn’t sink. And that was the way of saying the odds of the Titanic springing a leak were so small, we’re not going to think about the consequences.

But when those consequences are so terrible, and you’re talking about the sinking of that ship or the fouling of the Gulf, there has to be a rethinking of how you consider tiny chances of a mistake that can have consequences that range so far and affect so many people.

And I think that’s the big area of thinking that’s going to have to be ramped up by the United States and all these agencies and companies involved.

GWEN IFILL: Whether something mostly works or never fails I think is the way someone put it in an article today.

JAMES GLANZ: Right.

Jim Glanz with The New York Times, Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, thank you both very much.

JAMES GLANZ: Thanks a lot.

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Thank you.