BP Oil Spill: A ‘Preventable Disaster’

Wednesday, February 23, 2011 @ 07:02 PM gHale

Deepwater Horizon reports continue to mount and they all point to the same thing: BP was asleep at the wheel.

Even though an audit pointed out issues with the cement contractor, Halliburton Co., three years before the disaster, BP failed to keep a close watch on the work, according to the presidential oil spill commission.

The inadequate oversight may have proved deadly because the “root technical cause” of the blowout that killed 11 workers and gushed oil last April 20 was a failure of “the cement that BP and Halliburton pumped to the bottom of the well,” said Fred Bartlit, the commission’s chief counsel.

In a 357-page report that expands on the panel’s earlier accounts of the disaster, Bartlit also said workers accepted implausible explanations for errant test readings that could have revealed problems with the cement.

There was another factor that came into play and that was a BP reorganization on the drilling rig distracted key personnel.

The chief counsel’s report underscores the commission’s Jan. 11 conclusions that a series of technical failures contributed to the blowout. The end result though is all failures can track back to “an overarching failure of management.”

“The sad fact is that this was an entirely preventable disaster,” Bartlit said. “Poor decisions by management were the real cause.”

Bartlit faulted BP for “inadequately” supervising the cement job done by Halliburton, since the British oil giant had long raised concerns about the contractor’s work performance.

The commission previously documented concerns about the stability of the nitrogen-injected foam cement used to seal the Macondo well before BP temporarily stopped work at the site. A faulty cement job could allow channels or vulnerabilities for natural gas and oil to escape a well during the time between when it is drilled and when it is later hooked up to a production facility.

In 2007, BP commissioned an audit of Halliburton’s work on a separate project that concluded the contractor’s cement foam slurry had a tendency to become unstable.

“BP’s own cementing expert described the ‘typical Halliburton profile’ as ‘operationally competent and just good enough technically to get by,'” the report said.

BP also had been raising red flags about Halliburton’s lead cementing specialist on the project. “The team also expressed internal concern well before the blowout that (the Halliburton specialist) was not providing ‘quality work’ and was not ‘cutting it’ by waiting too long to start important tests,” the commission said.

A Halliburton spokeswoman said the company was still reviewing the report. Halliburton previously has disputed that its cement job was to blame and instead has faulted problems with the design of the well, which was in BP’s hands.

Bartlit said Halliburton did not cooperate with the commission’s investigation and “consistently refused to support its lawyers’ assertions with sworn testimony or additional documentation.”

In a statement, BP stressed it had “fully cooperated with the presidential commission” and other investigations, and noted that the panel’s findings dovetail with BP’s own analysis of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Although a series of missed warning signs preceded the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, Bartlit’s report focused on misinterpretations of a crucial “negative pressure test.”

BP’s well site leaders accepted a flawed theory for unusual test results, instead of attributing them to a failed cement job. They then did not flag them for BP’s vice president for drilling and completions, who was on the rig at the time.

When a BP worker defended his analysis days after the blowout, the BP vice president responded with an e-mail containing scores of question marks.

The chief counsel’s report also said a reorganization at BP may have exacerbated tensions among key personnel and added confusion about who was in charge during key points in the process of temporarily leaving the Macondo well.

The reorganization of BP’s exploration business unit, including the team working on Macondo, took place in early April. Before the overhaul, well personnel reported to the same onshore manager, but afterward, there were two separate lines of authority — one for engineering and another for operations.

“The reorganization caused delays and distractions” that prompted a BP executive to question whether the overhaul was causing performance problems, the commission said. “The reorganization also led to questions about authority and accountability and apparent friction between team leaders.”

One BP well team leader once emailed a supervisor saying “everybody wants to do the right thing” but a “huge level of paranoia from engineering leadership is driving chaos.”

“What is my authority?” the well team leader asked. “I do not know what I can and can’t do.”

Bartlit’s report spreads blame across the companies involved in the Macondo project, BP, Halliburton and Transocean Ltd., the operator of the drilling rig at BP’s Macondo well.

“BP did not fully appreciate all of the risks that Macondo presented,” Bartlit’s report concluded. “It did not adequately supervise the work of its contractors, who in turn did not deliver to BP all of the benefits of their expertise. BP personnel on the rig were not properly trained and supported, and all three companies failed to communicate key information to people who could have made a difference.”