BP Spill Investigator: No Sign Money Put before Safety

Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones Newswires), Nov. 8, 2010

BP's portrayal of the events leading up to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill got a partial boost on Monday as investigators from a presidential appointed commission concluded that decisions made by individual workers in developing the well might have made sense and weren't driven by money.

"To date, we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety," said Fred Bartlit, the chief counsel for the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, during his first public presentation on the causes of the spill.

But investigators also said that while the problems encountered in drilling the Macondo well were common throughout the industry, the combination of problems meant that the design team should have paid special attention to testing the job.

"These things individually are common in the industry," said Sambhav Sankar, the deputy chief counsel. "Taken together they're something that should have been in the head of the design team, cementing team, and if nothing else should have led them to be very careful, very concerned about what they were going to do next to test the job."

As for specific problems along the way, Sankar said that a decision to use six parts known as centralizers instead of the 21 recommended by Halliburton might not necessarily have been wrong. "There's no clarity even now on whether the additional centralizers should have been used on the rig," he said in a presentation.

The findings are just some of the details to emerge at the spill commission's first hearings in its investigation. The findings follow scathing criticism from Capitol Hill in which lawmakers had said that BP put profits ahead of safety and ignored warnings, such as the warning to use more centralizers.

A BP employee had said in an e-mail disclosed by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this year "who cares" about a shortage of parts known as centralizers. But on Monday, the spill investigators provided fuller details about that e-mail, revealing that the BP employee had also indicated that using fewer centralizers--key to keeping the casing centered in the well and thereby ensuring that cement flows evenly instead of leaving gaps through which oil or gas can channel--would simply mean using another tactic--squeezing cement into any empty spaces in the skinny area between the casing and the hydrocarbon formation.

"The team recognized that squeezing is a possibility and that they've increased the possibility of having to squeeze by using less centralizers," Sankar said.

As for choosing to design the well with a long string instead of a tie-back, Sankar said that the long string "has some value over the long-term life of the well." That is the same thing that former BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward had told a House panel, and compares with allegations by U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D, Calif.) that BP chose the long string method--which provides half as much protection against a possible pressure surge--to save $7 million.

Using a long string in and of itself "is not a problem," Sankar said, but "just requires more attention."

The presentation is continuing, and the spill commission staff has in many instances steered clear of coming to conclusions so far. But last month, the staff found that Halliburton knew about problems with the cement it designed and pumped into the well. The staff also said that because cement jobs may be faulty, the oil industry has tests to identify cementing failures, and that BP and or Transocean personnel misinterpreted or chose not to conduct such tests.

Copyright (c) 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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