White House Panel: Human Errors, Not Safety Cuts, Behind BP Disaster

By | November 9, 2010

The White House oil spill commission said on Monday it found no evidence to support accusations that the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history happened because workers for BP Plc and its partners cut corners to save money, mostly blaming the accident on a series of on-site misjudgments.

“To date we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety,” the commission’s Chief Counsel Fred Bartlit said at a meeting exploring the causes of the Gulf of Mexico spill.

Bartlit said the panel agreed with about 90 percent of the findings of BP’s internal investigation of the accident released this summer. BP’s report assigned much of the blame for the accident to its drilling partners.

Bartlit also said BP’s well design was not inherently faulty, although it did have some impact on the drilling project’s operations.

While the commission has no legal authority to carry out policies or punishment, the findings could help BP’s tarnished reputation, although the panel was still very critical of BP’s procedures to plug the well prior to the explosion, saying the oil giant took unnecessary risks.

Some lawmakers and critics have accused BP and other companies involved in drilling the well of sacrificing safety for monetary savings in the run-up to the rig explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf over the summer.

“What is fully evident, from BP’s pipeline spill in Alaska and the Texas city refinery disaster, to the Deepwater Horizon well failure, is that BP has a long and sordid history of cutting costs and pushing the limits in search of higher profits,” U.S. Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a statement.

Bartlit said the commission’s preliminary investigation found no evidence that individual workers took safety risks to save money, and that it instead found that a series of factors ultimately contributed to the explosion.

Still, Bartlit emphasized that his probe did not focus on company culture and not everything done on the rig was safe.

Workers for BP and Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, also misread a critical negative pressure test of cement used in an attempt to plug the well. The panel’s investigators said workers may have misinterpreted the test because neither of the companies nor the government had standard procedures for handling negative pressure tests.

There is disagreement over whether Transocean had any responsibility for overseeing the negative pressure test.

“Industry standard is that the operator, BP, interprets the test,” Bill Ambrose, director of special projects for Transocean, told the panel. “Our personnel do not have the experience or authority to interpret the negative test.”

Bartlit released a stinging report last month that said Halliburton Co used flawed cement in BP’s doomed well.

Commission co-chair Bill Reilly, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the initial findings seem to point to human mistakes as the primary cause of the accident.

While the panel will consider the need for better monitoring of rig data and more standards for negative pressure tests, Reilly said “it was very difficult … to see what we could recommend be required that would have avoided the decisions that were made.”

“However, it’s very difficult for me to conclude that there was not a culture of complacency affecting everything involved with this exercise,” Reilly said.

On Monday, Halliburton’s shares were up 4.7 pct, while Transocean’s shares were up 4.8 pct. BP was off 1.3 percent. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., 25 percent owner of the Macondo well, was down 4.3 percent.

Offshore drilling analyst Longdley Zephirin, of the Zephirin Group, said the offshore drilling industry, and especially Transocean and the service companies came off well after the first day of proceedings.

“We believe the hearing shines a positive light in the sector, as it exhibits the importance of safety versus saving money,” he said.

As he presented the commission’s preliminary findings, Bartlit stressed the probe was not focused on legal liability or assigning blame.

BP has accused Halliburton of using an unstable cement design and said Transocean failed to test the automatic shut-off function on the blowout preventer before it was used on the rig.

Transocean has denied those charges and said BP’s well design was a key factor in the accident. Halliburton has also defended its cement work on the well, and blamed other actions for causing the explosion.

It will be difficult to work out the discrepancies between the companies without the legal power to compel testimony from company representatives under oath, Bartlit said.

“I can’t subpoena people. I wish I could,” Bartlit said. “I think it’s damn important.”

Although a measure providing the panel with subpoena power passed the House of Representatives earlier this year, the measure was held up by partisan gridlock in the Senate.

President Barack Obama created the seven-member commission in the aftermath of the drilling accident. Its ultimate charge is to develop proposals to prevent and respond to major spills in the future.

(Editing by David Gregorio,Jim Marshall and Sofina Mirza-Reid)

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