Holding BP accountable for bad decisions that led to oil spill disaster: An editorial
Published: Sunday, September 18, 2011, 7:34 AM
The federal government's most conclusive report on the Deepwater Horizon disaster reaffirms the crucial finding shared by some of the other probes into the tragedy: that BP's failure to assess the well's risks and the company's relentless drive to cut corners at the expense of safety were the main catalysts for the catastrophe. That unequivocal conclusion should demolish BP's efforts to deflect blame for the blowout and the subsequent oil spill, especially when it comes to determining payment of the massive fines related to the incident.
But that's not the only reason why the report by the Joint Investigation Team of the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and the Coast Guard is important.
Members of the joint team conducted the only non-criminal probe of the disaster that had subpoena power. That allowed investigators to question, under oath, a large number of witnesses -- many in public hearings conducted in Kenner -- and to access extensive records from the firms involved. As a result, the joint report's damning findings regarding BP should weigh heavily as the U.S. Department of Justice conducts its own probe into whether the oil giant violated criminal law.
Already, some environmentalists and Gulf advocates argue that the joint investigation report strongly supports a finding that BP was grossly negligent, a conclusion that would call for the maximum fines possible under the Clean Water Act.
Indeed, members of the joint investigative team clearly believe that BP personnel sacrificed safety in order to save time and money at the Macondo well. The report noted that at the time of the blowout, the project to drill Macondo was behind schedule and $58 million over budget. The document includes a chart specifically keying on seven critical decisions in the design of the well and the drilling process -- all made by BP managers.
Those decisions included two key missteps first reported by Times-Picayune reporter David Hammer last fall. BP, at the last minute, canceled a test that would have checked the cementing job's integrity, even though the company had a contractor at the site ready to do it. BP also decided to use a cheaper well structure that ignored the difficulties of drilling in the ultra-deep water and in difficult geological formations.
The company also decided to use only six so-called "centralizers" to keep the well's casings centered and ensure a good cementing job, far fewer than the 21 centralizers recommended by computer models.
In each of the seven troubling decisions highlighted in the report, investigators concluded that BP's choice was cheaper and required less drilling time. In six of the cases, BP's favored option increased risks at the well.
"BP's failure to fully assess the risks associated with a number of operational decisions leading up to the blowout," and the company's "cost- or time-saving decisions without considering contingencies and mitigation were contributing causes of the Macondo blowout," the report concluded.
An indictment of BP's decisions doesn't get any clearer than that.
Therein lies a key distinction between the joint investigative team and the presidential oil spill commission. While the commission also chastised BP for what it called "an overarching failure of management," its report put more blame for the disaster on Transocean and Halliburton than the joint investigative team does.
For example, both probes concluded that a failure of cement poured to the bottom of the well was the key catalyst for the blowout. But the presidential commission suggested shared blame between BP and cement contractor Halliburton, noting that Halliburton didn't give BP full test results on the cement mix used. The joint investigative report noted that Halliburton was still waiting for results of some of the cement testing and relayed that information to BP managers on April 19, 2010, a day before the blowout. BP officials decided to go ahead with the cementing job anyway.
The differences between the reports have major economic and policy ramifications. In focusing its findings on decisions made by BP managers, the joint investigative team mostly steered clear of echoing the flawed indictment of the entire drilling industry made by the presidential oil commission.
The commission's report argued that the Macondo blowup reflected systemic problems across the industry -- in contradiction to previous independent investigations. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration used the commission's report to support its case for an unnecessary, industry-wide moratorium on drilling in the Gulf.
The joint investigative team focused its blame instead on bad decisions made by BP personnel at the site. Although the report makes recommendations for improving safety across the industry, the problems found at Macondo and BP's cost-driven managerial style does not necessarily reflect industry-wide irresponsibility as suggested by the presidential commission.
Transocean and Halliburton were not blameless. The joint investigative team found that the two companies, like BP, violated numerous federal offshore safety regulations. Those violations aggravated the disaster and complicated the response to it.
But the joint investigative team's report is a rebuke of BP's efforts to try to shift most of the responsibility for the disaster to its contractors. BP can protest all it wants, but this latest report -- and the findings from other investigations -- makes clear that the oil giant made the key decisions at the site and was more concerned with cost-cutting than safety.
Now the Justice Department must hold BP and its managers accountable for those decisions.
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