Facing South

Spill panel: Driven by 'compulsion' to finish well, BP's procedures increased risk

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By Marian Wang, ProPublica

As we noted earlier this week,
members of the presidential commission investigating BP's Deepwater
Horizon oil spill made clear that they don't believe individual BP
workers consciously decided to put corporate profit over safety when making decisions regarding the deadly Gulf well.

But it's unclear what this sweeping assessment means -- or, for that
matter, how it was reached -- given that the facts show that BP's decisions
in designing and completing the well often saved time, saved money, and "introduced additional risk," in the panel's own words. 

Since
the conclusion of Monday's hearing, the commission's chief counsel,
Fred Bartlit Jr., complained that the media reached "overarching
conclusions" about his presentation.
(Bartlit had earlier said, "To date we have not seen a single instance
where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over
safety.") In comments reported yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, he
clarified that money may still have had some influence, given the cost
of each day's drilling operations: "Any time you're talking about $1.5
million a day, money enters in."

In hearings, one of the commission's co-chairmen, Sen. Bob Graham, had also questioned why BP rushed to complete the well [5] prior to its explosion, according to The Hill.

"There seemed to be a compulsion to get this rig completed," said
Graham, a Florida Democrat. "As a result of that, a number of things
that might have made the outcome different were deferred or abandoned."

Those extra precautions -- which would have meant spending more time on a rig that cost BP more than a half-million dollars each day to lease and more than $1 million each day to operate -- included crucial tests that were either skipped or interpreted to be successful despite observed abnormalities.

For example, BP skipped a cement bond log that might have identified flaws in the cement job performed by Halliburton.
BP, by its own admission, said in its report on the blowout that a
cement bond log "might have enabled the BP Macondo well team to identify
further mitigation options to address risks." The panel, however, gave
BP a pass for its decision to bypass this step:

"Cement evaluation tools might have identified cementing failure, but
most operators would not have run tools at that time," according to the
panel. "They would have relied on the negative pressure test."

As to that pressure test, the panel noted that despite abnormal
results in the test, both BP and Transocean workers "treated [the]
negative pressure test as a complete success."

Bartlit also questioned BP's decision to move ahead with sealing the well by removing heavy drilling mud
that would have helped safeguard against blowouts like the one that
triggered the disaster, the Wall Street Journal reported. UC Berkeley
engineering professor Bob Bea had previously told "60 Minutes" that
removing the mud "expedites the subsequent steps."

And here's what we noted earlier about results from previous hearings regarding BP's procedures and well design choices:

Lawmakers earlier this summer also flagged the desire to save time
and money as a factor in the Gulf disaster. "BP repeatedly chose risky
procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal
efforts to contain the added risk," the House Energy and Commerce
Committee wrote in a letter to then-CEO Tony Hayward this June.

The committee also released internal company emails that showed BP
employees discussing well design options and noting that the design of
the Macondo well "saves lots of time ... at least 3 days." The other option being considered, according to the House committee, would have cost $7 to $10 million more.

On well design, the oil spill panel again gave BP a pass for choosing
the cheaper option. The "long string" design in and of itself "is not a
problem," Sambhav Sankar, the panel's deputy chief counsel, said in
comments reported by the Journal. It "just requires more attention."

Internal company e-mails, moreover, show that individual employees
weighed risk and reward when deciding how to proceed with the well.
Take, for instance, this April 16 email from a BP employee, after deciding to go ahead with fewer centralizers than recommended by Halliburton:

"But, who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine and
we'll get a good cement job," wrote Brett Cocales, a BP drilling
engineer. "Guide [another BP official] is right on the risk/reward
equation."

Cocales, asked later about this email in congressional hearings, said
he had used the "risk/reward equation" more generally to mean "what are
the pros and cons of a decision" -- and not in economic terms.

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