Commission won't be last word on Gulf oil spill

January 6, 2011 By HARRY R. WEBER and DINA CAPPIELLO , Associated Press
This April 21, 2010 file photo shows the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burning after an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, off the southeast tip of Louisiana. Decisions intended to save time and money created an unreasonable amount of risk that triggered the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, a disaster that could happen again without significant reforms by industry and government, the presidential panel investigating the BP blowout concluded Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

(AP) -- A presidential commission's conclusion on the largest offshore oil spill in history that decisions meant to save time and money created an unreasonable amount of risk won't be the final word on the disaster.

But it already has the companies involved with the blown-out well and Deepwater Horizon rig pointing fingers at each other again.

In a 48-page excerpt of its final report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, the commission described systemic problems within the offshore oil and gas industry and government regulators who oversee it. It also said such a disaster could happen again without significant reforms.

The full report is due to the president Jan. 11. But key questions will remain, namely: Why didn't a hulking piece of equipment that sat at the wellhead and was supposed to choke off the flow of oil in the event of a blowout do its job? Federal investigators analyzing the blowout preventer at a NASA facility in New Orleans aren't expected to finish until February.

The Justice Department continues its own investigation, as does a joint U.S. Coast Guard-Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement panel.

The oil spill commission said poor decisions led to technical problems that contributed to the April 20 accident that killed 11 people and led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from BP's well a mile beneath the . Inquiries by BP and Congress have found the same.

BP, Halliburton and Transocean, the three key companies involved with the well and the rig that exploded, each made individual decisions that increased risks of a blowout but saved significant time or money.

But ultimately, the Deepwater Horizon disaster came down to a single failure, the panel says: management. When decisions were made, no one was considering the risk they were taking.

In one example cited by the commission, a BP request to set an "unusually deep cement plug" was approved by the then-Minerals Management Service in 90 minutes. That decision is one of the nine technical and engineering calls the commission says increased the risk of a blowout.

"The blowout was not the product of a series of abberational decisions made by a rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again. Rather, the root causes are systemic, and absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur," the commission concluded.

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the report focused on areas in which the agency in charge of offshore drilling has already made improvements.

"The agency has taken unprecedented steps and will continue to make the changes necessary to restore the American people's confidence in the safety and environmental soundness of oil and gas drilling and production on the Outer Continental Shelf, while balancing our nation's important energy needs," Barkoff said in a statement.

BP PLC in a statement issued Wednesday said the report, like its own investigation, found the accident was the result of multiple causes, involving multiple companies, but the company was working with regulators "to ensure the lessons learned from Macondo lead to improvements in operations and contractor services in deepwater drilling."

Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig being leased by BP to perform the drilling, said in response to the commission's findings that "the procedures being conducted in the final hours were crafted and directed by BP engineers and approved in advance by federal regulators."

Halliburton Co., the cement contractor on the well, also said it acted at the direction of BP and was "fully indemnified by BP."

The commission underscores its central conclusion with a quote from an e-mail written by BP engineer Brett Cocales on April 16, just days before the disaster. The e-mail was first unearthed in an investigation conducted by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who at the time led the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"But, who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine and we'll get a good cement job," Cocales wrote, after he disagreed with BP's decision to use fewer centralizers than recommended. Centralizers are used to center the pipe to ensure a good cement job. The cement failed at the bottom of the Macondo well, allowing oil and gas to enter it, according to investigations.

The suggestion that the BP disaster may not be an isolated incident runs counter to assurances by the oil industry, which has worked hard to portray the accident as a rare occurrence.

"This clearly was a rare incident," the president of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, said Tuesday when his organization published a new report urging Congress and the Obama administration to open more areas to oil and gas drilling.

Outside experts in technological disasters were split by the report's excerpt. They lauded the commission's focus on organizational and managerial failures instead of blaming the rig workers. But they were divided whether the panel went far enough in criticizing the companies for taking time- and money-saving shortcuts.

University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Bob Bea, who has studied and worked on offshore oil rigs for decades and is an international expert on technological disasters, lauded the panel for "articulating the hows and whys."

"This was a preventable disaster," said Bea, who ran a Berkeley investigation into the accident. "We failed to manage and we were managed."

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5 / 5 (2) Jan 06, 2011
But ultimately, the Deepwater Horizon disaster came down to a single failure, the panel says: management.

-couldn't agree more. This has been my conclusion sinces 14 days after the spill occured. Which managment? Well, they are all responsible, but I blaim the top of the chain of command. They enforce and encourage a minimal cost minimal time mentality, regardless of quality; this takes on a seriously ugly face in the presence of negligent regulators or lack thereof. A gamble was taken with this well, a gamble is taken with most wells.

But I fear this is not entirely limited to the oil industry. It appears to be a state of mind in this country and most of the world; cheaper, faster and, as a result, lower quality and lifespan. Profits are the only goal, not product. Quantity, not quality, is the driving force of our economies, and this has to change soon or we are heading off a cliff, unlimited quanity does not exist, especially with 6B people on the planet.
not rated yet Jan 06, 2011
I'm still waiting for the report on the BOP, which I suspect will be inconclusive. If so, I will continue to believe that the unanticipated disaster was caused by methane clathrates. A few days before the blowout I read a scientific paper with two very surprising conclusions. First, that methane clathrates have allotropes of different densities. And second that the new allotropes were metastable at the depth of the Macondo BOP.

Even if someone warned BP and others about this issue, and its potential affect on the Macondo well, I'm not sure that anything could be done to prevent the spill. (In other words, I think the BOP had been plugged with methane clathrate (burning ice) days before the blowout. But if they had been warned, 11 lives might have been saved.

Of course, if BP knew BOP was completely compromised after the blowout, a lot of useless methods of stopping the flow would have been out the window--and shortened time until an effective fix was applied by a month or so.
not rated yet Jan 06, 2011
I'm not a chemist, so I dont doubt your statements, but I am still pretty sure it is incorrect.

Part of BPs normal operating precedures (simplified):
1- Drill well
2- Dump Heavy mud in well to hold down oil
3- Cement the well

It appears they completely skipped step 2 and tried to let the normal drilling mud hold down the oil while cementing. This was against the recommendation of all engineers involved, who were ordered to do this by what had to be managers, not engineers. Add the inappropriate cement job, to save costs, and the well did not last long.

Why did the manual operator on the blow out preventer fail? Most likely because the outlet was mangled by the explosion.

This was a particularly nasty well, but the've been successful in the past with similar wells. No, I think they took a gamble and lost. Perhaps the loss of this particular gamble was a higher than normal concentration of whatever in the well, but the root cause is gambling with a Sea they only barrowed.
not rated yet Jan 07, 2011
I think that the disaster was caused by clathrates in the well. Both the mud and the cement contain water, and this well produced a lot of methane. I think due to normal procedures during the drilling, water in the drilling mud was converted to clathrate. Some of it downhole, but a lot of it lining the casing. (In other words, the mud created ice (clathrate) on the sides of the casing because it was cooler than the conditions downhole. The casing is much bigger than the drill bit so there is lots of room to raise and lower the drill.

Now put the cement in. We can argue about the reasons the mud was not creating a good seal, but the cement generates heat as it cures. It only takes a few degrees to reach the triple point of the clathrate allotrope, and it then converts to methane and steam rather explosively.

I'm pretty sure that was the direct cause of the explosion that blew the drill string up through the rig. The BOP couldn't prevent it because it was below the explosion.
not rated yet Jan 12, 2011
Well, even if all that is true, it sounds like a well known effect that should have been accounted for. If it was not well known, well, then we shouldn't be drilling at all. Either way, a disaster such as this should make it 100% clear that the proenvironmental advertisments by these companies are blatten propaganda. These companies, considering each as a person as the courts have ruled, do not care the least about our environment, they exist solely for profit; this seems to be human nature enforsing itself on the capitalist system. Effective and extremely stringent regulations are the only solution, as was done with nuclear. More people have been killed in this single rig explosion than all the people killed by nuclear disasters, there have been none. So, it should be clear fossil fuels are far more dangerous than nuclear and, at a minium, deserves the same level of regulation which, currently, is negligent and collusive.

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