BP's Troubled Past

Investigative reporting and documents -- some never before published -- on major incidents at BP facilities over the past decade that grabbed headlines and raised questions about the company's record and performance and government oversight.


Its Corporate Culture

For a broad overview, check out reporting from ProPublica on years of internal BP incident probes, a New York Times timeline, this McClatchy article on BP's record of legal and ethical violations, and the Center for Public Integrity's analysis of safety problems at BP's Texas City and Toledo, Ohio, refineries.

Twenty years ago, BP was nothing like the powerful multinational corporation it is today. In 1995, Lord John Browne, an engineer and BP manager with a reputation as an aggressive cost-cutter, became CEO. Browne, described in this Observer article as the "enigma who brought BP in from the cold," was known for making big deals. In the late '90s and early 2000s, BP bought Amoco, Arco and five other companies -- quadrupling the company's value. This New York Times article describes Browne as trying to turn BP into a company "that is as much at home in Silicon Valley as in the Oil Belt." Browne was also known as the rare oil industry executive who acknowledged climate change; in 1997, he told an audience at Stanford University "There is now an effective consensus among the world's leading scientists and serious and well-informed people outside the scientific community that there is a discernible human influence on the climate and a link between the concentration of carbon dioxide and the increase in temperature," and he tried to rebrand BP as "Beyond Petroleum" in the early 2000s. The company's new logo featured Helios, the ancient Greek sun god, and Browne was dubbed the "Sun King" by the news media.

Browne surrounded himself with a group of young executives he dubbed his "turtles" -- named after the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One of those turtles, Tony Hayward, an engineer who headed oil exploration worldwide, was chosen to succeed Browne after Browne was forced out following a scandal about his private life. Hayward spoke candidly about BP's problems at Stanford Business School in July 2009 and he promised to reform BP's safety culture.

Hayward himself was forced out after the Deepwater Horizon spill and replaced by Bob Dudley, an American who had headed BP ventures in Russia. This profile of Dudley from The Guardian depicts the American's "calmness under fire" as a reason he was elevated to the top job.

Texas Refinery Explosion

On March 23, 2005, 15 people died in an explosion at BP's Texas City, Texas refinery; 170 more were injured. Two months before the explosion, on Jan. 21, consultants hired by safety-conscious Texas City engineer Don Parus published an assessment of the "safety behavior and culture" at the refinery. The report included an employee survey in which workers talked about their "exceptional degree of fear" and their fears of dying. [Read the executive summary or the full report.] And the previous year, in the fall of 2004, Parus had given a presentation to BP to Texas City plant leaders and to BP refining and marketing chief John Manzoni in London. PowerPoint slides from the presentation state that "Texas City is not a Safe Place to Work," and includes a list of workers who died at the plant.

The 1200-acre Texas City refinery, which was built in 1934, was acquired in 1999 as part of BP's $61 billion takeover of Amoco. While under Amoco management, major upgrades to the refinery had been postponed. For example, in 1991, Amoco considered replacing the antiquated blowdown drums used to collect volatile liquids and gasses in an emergency with safer, modern flares. They decided against it; it was a question of saving money. A 2002 e-mail chain [PDF] indicates that BP had also considered updating the blowdown drums but decided against it. "We need to decide if we want to invest $150,000 now to save money later on," wrote one employee. A senior manager wrote that capital expenditure is "very tight. Bank the $150,000 in savings right now." In the March 23, 2005 explosion, observers saw a geyser of excess gas and liquid "flying out the top of" the blowdown drum.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board launched a two-year investigation, which resulted in the publication of this report [PDF] on March 20, 2007. The CSB also released a 54-minute video about the explosion titled "Anatomy of a Disaster," which details the investigation and BP's safety, practices and standards, and includes a computer re-enactment of the explosion.

A second investigation, commissioned by BP, was led by former Secretary of State James Baker. It concluded that "BP has not adequately embraced safety as a core value." BP Senior Group Vice President for Safety & Operations John Mogford gave this speech on "Lessons Learned" from the Texas City explosion at an industry conference. "This was a preventable incident," he said. "It should be seen as a process failure, a cultural failure and a management failure."

The Galveston County Daily News has extensive coverage of the explosion on its "Tragedy in Texas City" portal, which includes an article about OSHA's record 2009 $87 million fine against BP for lack of compliance with safety regulations, and photographs from more than five years of reporting on the explosion and its aftermath. BP initially contested the $87 million fine, but agreed to pay $50 million in August 2010.

Brent Coon & Associates, the lead counsel in the litigation following the explosion, created a website that features evidence releases, a library of media coverage, and Eva Rowe's lawsuit against BP. Rowe, whose father and mother both died in the explosion, refused an initial settlement with BP that would have prevented her from talking publicly about the company. Instead, she filed a lawsuit against BP, which she eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, $32 million donated to charities of her choice, and the release of 7 million internal BP documents, many of which became the basis for subsequent investigations. You can find out more about her advocacy at her website.

In June 2010, Galveston County Daily News reporter T.J. Aulds reported that BP intentionally released 500,000 pounds of poisonous emissions over a period of 40 days beginning in April 2010. You can read more about this incident on ProPublica's website. The EPA is currently investigating, and the state of Texas filed suit against BP in August 2010.

Alaska Accidents and Spills

BP's vast Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska's North Slope represents 8 percent of America's domestic oil production. But as detailed in this ProPublica report, a rash of problems in BP's Alaska operations raise questions about BP's commitment to safety.

One incident, in 2002, involved oil worker Don Shugak, who was injured when a Prudhoe Bay well he was inspecting blew up; he lay in a coma for six weeks after the incident. This report details what led to that explosion. Shugak, who suffered broken bones and burns, settled with BP for an undisclosed sum and agreed not to speak to the media as part of his settlement. His accident spurred workers to bring safety concerns to the attention of BP management, but workers tell FRONTLINE no action was taken. Workers at BP's Prudhoe Bay facilities had brought safety concerns to BP management before; in 2001, management issued this report which details worker concerns about cost-cutting and safety and outlines recommendations to fix the "fundamental lack of trust" at the facility.

In March 2006, 260,000 gallons of oil leaked from a BP pipeline in the worst spill ever on the North Slope. The reason was corrosion caused by sediment buildup in the pipe, which hadn't been cleaned in over a decade. Five months later, BP was forced to shut down operations after a second spill.

In the aftermath of the Alaska spills, questions were raised about the quality of the pipe inspections, many of which are conducted by subcontractors, such as Acuren, who was responsible for pipe inspections at Prudhoe Bay. ProPublica and FRONTLINE have learned that some pipe inspectors were not certified or trained properly. An e-mail, from an attorney who routinely deals with BP worker complaints, offers insight into Acuren supervisor Martin Anderson's attempts to alert officials to "the deficiencies within Acuren's inspection program on the slope." Some of these deficiencies include violations in compliance requirements, inadequate record keeping and the hiring of uncertified inspectors. BP has since acknowledged that more than 19 inspectors, responsible for more than 13,000 inspection points, were uncertified. They say they've corrected the problem and that at least 10,000 inspection points have been re-examined.

On Jan. 14, 2010, Reps. Henry Waxman [D-Calif.] and Bart Stupak [D-Mich.] sent this letter to BP, asking for updated safety information about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in light of several additional close safety calls. You can read ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten's story on the letter here.

Here is additional coverage on the 2006 Alaska spills from PBS NewsHour, as well as and NPR's reporting on the congressional response to the incidents. According to this May 2010 Alaska Dispatch story, BP is still fighting fines stemming from oil spills at Prudhoe Bay.

Thunder Horse Rig

In July 2005, Hurricane Dennis swirled over the Gulf of Mexico; in its path was Thunder Horse, BP's showcase platform, which towered 43 stories above the water. When the storm hit, BP's state-of-the-art rig toppled over. After an investigation BP discovered that the storm wasn't the problem; as ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten explains: "It turns out that BP engineers had incorrectly installed a number of valves that are meant to control the flow of water in the supports that keep the rig afloat. And the rig, as a result, took on water instead of shedding it."

On January 2007, the Minerals Management Service (now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement) came out with its accident report [PDF] on the oil platform accident. Among hte causes cited for the accident is "human error."

Read more about the Thunder Horse incident in this article from The New York Times. Also take a look at this blog entry from the Financial Times that summarizes the geological and engineering issues facing BP and other companies engaging in deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Deepwater Horizon Spill: Reporting

One of more than 100 BP oil rigs in the gulf, the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20, 2010, once again brought to light BP's safety problems, this time in the form of the worst environmental disaster is U.S. history.

This Times-Picayune report identifies the five human errors and the one major mechanical error -- the malfunctioning blowout preventer -- that led to the gulf oil spill. You can also explore this related graphic that illustrates each of the six errors. ProPublica has this analysis of BP's internal report on the gulf spill.

Though it is difficult to assess the full, long-term impacts of the spill, some reporting has sought to identify some of its possible lasting economic, environmental and health effects. This Times-Picayune article examines how the spill, as well as the moratorium on drilling, disparately affected some local industries more than others. BP has set up a $20 billion claims operation for compensation for damages incurred by victims of the spill. This New York Times report investigates some of the challenges of addressing compensation claims, particularly instances of fraud.

This article in the Financial Times examines some of the health effects, including respiratory problems, cancer and mental health problems that the spill might trigger for people living and working in the gulf region. It also cites an earlier study conducted by the U.S. Institute of Medicine, which surveyed the potential adverse health effects resulting from the spill. Six months after the explosion, this Associated Press article includes the views of scientists who measure the longer-term ecological impacts of the spill. And The New York Times profiles some of the spill's lasting environmental effects in the gulf, particularly on wildlife.

And this article in Esquire offers an incisive and humanizing portrait of the 11 workers who died at the Deepwater Horizon rig the night of April 20.

For further reading, the Wall Street Journal has these book recommendations from a panel of experts on "the world's thirst for oil and the hazards of that dependence."

Deepwater Horizon Spill: Multimedia

Online coverage of the gulf spill included a number of extensive multimedia features and interactive graphics that paint vibrant pictures of the spill and its impact.

The Financial Times' interactive timeline chronicles the explosion through Aug. 4, along with estimates of the number of barrels of oil captured and the cost of cleanup per day. You can also view NASA satellite imagery that depicts the spread and reach of the spill at different stages.

The New York Times' gulf spill multimedia portal includes a map tracking the spill's spread, impacts and efforts to cap it. It also investigated the spill's effects on wildlife, including a map and data of sea turtles, dolphins and birds that were found dead. This related gallery features photos from the investigation into the notably higher number of animals found dead in the Gulf of Mexico in comparison with years past.

And the Boston Globe's "Big Picture" produced seven photo galleries of the spill, from late April, when the oil first approached Louisiana's coast, to August, following the first successful efforts to cap the well:

Deepwater Horizon Spill: Where Were the Regulators?

Since the spill, the government has come under criticism for failing to regulate more thoroughly deepwater drilling and offshore oil production. This Wall Street Journal article investigates two decades of oil exploration to demonstrate how years of lax government regulation, in an effort to foster the offshore oil production boom, led up to the gulf spill. This related graphic depicts the offshore field production of crude oil over the years, illustrating the "deepwater oil rush." Additionally, this article in Rolling Stone examines the industry's self-regulation during the Bush administration and argues that the Obama administration ignored ample warnings and failed to crack down on the Minerals Management Service (MMS). And this ProPublica post questions why there was very little environmental review of drilling in the gulf, particularly by MMS and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

You can explore the Environmental Protection Agency's response to the spill on its website, which features information about air, sediment and water quality tests in the gulf following the spill.

The MMS has since been renamed with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement [BOEMRE], which is responsible for "overseeing the safe and environmentally responsible development of energy and mineral resources on the Outer Continental Shelf." You can read more about BOEMRE's response to the fallout from the spill at its website.

Several committees in both the Senate and House held hearings looking into the gulf spill disaster. On June 17, 2010, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on "The Role of BP in the Deepwater Horizon Explosion and Oil Spill," during which then-BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward testified [PDF] before the committee. You can read this letter [PDF] addressed to Hayward from Chairmen Henry Waxman [D-Calif.] and Bart Stupak [D-Mich.] before the hearing, which raises concerns about BP and its operations in the gulf, and asks Hayward to respond to them in his testimony. Hayward was largely rebuked for his responses to questions posed to him. You can find other witness testimonies, documents and a video of this hearing here.

On Oct. 6, 2010, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, established by President Obama to investigate the "facts and circumstances concerning the root causes" of the explosion, released four working papers that suggest the White House was involved in controlling information about the spill, that its response "seemed to lag," and was "overly optimistic" about BP's abilities to respond. You can read more about the findings of these preliminary papers from ProPublica and from the Times-Picayune. The commission's final report is due to the president on Jan. 12, 2011.

On Oct. 12, 2010, the Obama administration lifted its moratorium on deepwater oil and gas drilling and issued new protective measures for offshore drilling under BOEMRE. You can view these new rules, which "tighten standards for well design, blowout preventers, safety certification, emergency response and worker training" here.


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posted october 26, 2010; updated on october 28, 2010

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