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Oil Disaster Report Preview Spreads Blame, Offers Stark Warning

January 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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President Obama's commission on the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has released a preview of its final report, warning that a similar disaster to the Deepwater Horizon rig blast could happen again if reforms aren't made. Ray Suarez speaks with Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post for more on the findings.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: some early findings in an investigation of the Gulf oil spill.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: This image of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on fire in the Gulf of Mexico is now a memory, but the president’s commission warns, it could all happen again.

The final report is not due until next week, but a 48-page excerpt was released publicly today. The panel concluded that, “Absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, a disaster might well recur.”

All three companies involved with the well, BP, Transocean and Halliburton, were cited for cutting corners to save time or money. The report said those choices led to the flooding of the Gulf with more than 200 million gallons of oil.

Last November, the commission’s lead investigator had testified he found no evidence of wanton wrongdoing.

FRED BARTLIT, chief counsel, National Oil Spill Commission: We see no instance where a decision-making person or group of people sat there, aware of safety risks, aware of costs, and opted to give up safety for costs.

RAY SUAREZ: Instead, the report says the problem was much bigger than any individual, and that the root causes are systemic.

As evidence, the commission counted nine decisions on engineering that it said increased the risk of a blowout, many of them regarding the well’s cement job, done by Halliburton. But the new report also cites BP’s decision to cut the number of centralizers used to center the well pipe during the cement work.

The panel referred to this e-mail from a BP engineer, who wrote: “Who cares? It’s done, end of story. We will probably be fine, and we will get a good cement job.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, BP said it’s working with regulators to improve operations. But Halliburton and Transocean, the rig owner, again faulted BP engineers for bad decisions.

Questions remain about the blowout preventer, which failed to stop oil from spewing into the Gulf. An analysis of why it failed may not be ready until next month.

For more on what we learned from the commission’s early excerpt, we are joined by Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post.

And, Joel, looking over this early release, what would you say is the key finding?

JOEL ACHENBACH, The Washington Post: I think they’re saying that this wasn’t really an accident, in the classic sense of a freak event. They’re not — they’re saying that there wasn’t just one bad actor, there wasn’t one rogue company, but, rather, this tragic incident emerged from a system. It was a systemic failure.

If you go back to early May, late April, I think, it was one of the senior people for BP said what we had here with the Deepwater Horizon disaster was a failed piece of equipment. BP blamed the blowout preventer down on top of the well.

And what the commission is saying is, no, it’s not a single piece of equipment. It’s not even one company, which is actually music to BP’s ears. This is BP, it’s Halliburton, it’s Transocean, it’s the government regulators, it’s the industry allowed this event to happen.

RAY SUAREZ: What are some of the examples of the kind of corner-cutting identified by this early commission report? What do they say wasn’t getting done?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, they list about nine of them.

And what they have in common is, it seems like, in every case, that BP, when it had to make a tough decision, it went with the decision that either saved time — and, remember, these rigs are costing a million dollars a day. Every day, a million dollars goes out the door, whether it’s drilling or not.

So, in these instances, they made decisions to save time, such as they didn’t run a cement bond log test that would have tested the cement job. They chose not to do that. They also didn’t wait for some additional centralizers to come out to the rig. They could have said, we don’t like the number of centralizers we have, or we don’t like the ones that we have in place. We will wait and get some more.

They didn’t do that. That would have taken time. It would have cost money. And they took some other steps that the commission feels the pattern is that they did things that would have potentially raised the risk of a blowout.

RAY SUAREZ: And what’s a centralizer?

JOEL ACHENBACH: A centralizer is — you have this pipe that goes down in the well. It keeps it centered in the well for when you do the cement job. The cement will come up evenly around the pipe in what’s called the annulus.

If you don’t have the centralizer, the pipe can go one way or the other in the wellbore, and that could potentially lead to an imperfect cement job and what’s called channeling, which could allow gas to flow up the well.

RAY SUAREZ: And while this is popularly thought of as the BP oil spill, the commission talks about three big companies with big responsibilities, Transocean, Halliburton, and of course BP itself. Was that a functional relationship, in their view?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, keep in mind, Transocean is a contractor with these huge drilling rigs, and they work for lots of oil companies.

Halliburton goes back to 1923 in the Erle Halliburton oil well cementing company. I mean, these are very established players, work around the world on oil drilling. And the fact that they’re saying it wasn’t just BP, it was also these other companies, and also was the government regulators creates a picture and it raises the question of, well, is the industry broadly ready to drill again in the deep water?

RAY SUAREZ: How was the government cited for its shortcomings? What did they say it should have been doing that it didn’t do?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, I think the government comes off as fairly useless. I think the government comes off as — with the Minerals Management Service, as being a weak, borderline feeble, regulatory agency, that it didn’t have enough people to do all the work it needed to do.

You had people flying out on a helicopter to land on a rig to inspect the rig in a matter of hours. I mean, these are huge contraptions. I mean, these things are — they’re 25 stories tall or 35 stories tall. The blowout preventer is at the bottom of the sea. How you going to inspect that?

I mean, this is a tough job. The pay isn’t as great for these regulators as it would be in private industry. If you’re getting out of school, do you want to go work for the government for $45,000, $50,000 a year, or make twice that or much more with the industry?

So, I think that the government agency does want come off well in the presidential commission report.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the report cite specific violations of the code or regulations, or was it more the idea that they were just taking risks that weren’t necessarily against the law, but was kind of a fingers-crossed approach toward building and running these rigs?

JOEL ACHENBACH: Well, it had worked before.

I mean, it’s a case of they had drilled wells in shallow water, and they gradually went into deeper and deeper water. And, as they did this, they didn’t suffer a catastrophic event. And so you keep going into deeper water.

And at the Macondo well, the Deepwater Horizon was drilling at 5,000 feet. But the tools they had were the same tools that they had used in the shallow water, the tools to control the well and then the tools to then try to plug the well after the blowout.

And, somewhere along the line, I think the industry needed to realize, hey, we have gone to a different planet here. This is a different environment. Maybe we need a more robust set of instruments and tools and hardware and robotic submersibles, and just need a different skill set in dealing with the deep water, because I think one lesson is that the depth matters.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

JOEL ACHENBACH: Thank you, Ray.