Oil spill report lays much blame on BP, who knew of Halliburton weaknesses

February 17, 2011

The chief counsel of the presidential oil spill commission has issued a final report laying considerable blame on BP for last year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But he also points to flaws in Halliburton’s work and errors by rig owner Transocean.

Fred H. Bartlit Jr., a prominent trial lawyer, said that for three years BP had been aware of problems with lab tests of Halliburton cement; that a reorganization of BP’s engineering department resulted in delays; and that BP decided not to set a lockdown sleeve, an installation deep in the well, during its preparations for temporary abandonment in order to save 51 / 2 days and $2 million in costs.

He also said BP’s well-site leader was not present, as he should have been, during a critical test known as a negative pressure test that indicated something was wrong.

Bartlit’s report is the latest of a series from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, which has already faulted a variety of factors, including decisions made by the well operator BP, rig owner Transocean, oil service provider Halliburton and federal regulators.

In a statement Thursday, BP did not dispute the report’s specifics. The London-based oil giant said that it “has made every effort to understand the causes of the Deepwater Horizon accident to help prevent similar events from occurring in the future.” BP said the presidential commission’s findings — “particularly that the accident was the result of multiple causes, involving multiple parties — are largely consistent with those contained in the BP internal investigation report.” It added that it is reorganizing its safety operations and reviewing its supervision of contractors.

Halliburton and Transocean did not issue comments.

Bartlit noted that in 2007, a consulting firm issued a quality-control report warning BP that Halliburton’s lab technicians “do not have a lot of experience evaluating data” and that BP needed to improve communication with Halliburton “to avoid unnecessary delays or errors in the slurry design testing.”

A cementing expert at BP described the “typical Halliburton profile” as “operationally competent and just good enough technically to get by.” And BP’s engineers said that the Halliburton engineer assigned to the doomed Macondo well was “not cutting it” and that he often waited too long to conduct critical tests. But, Bartlit added, the BP engineers neither reviewed his work at Macondo carefully nor checked to see that he conducted testing in a timely manner — even though they knew that their last-minute changes to the cement design test could cause problems and that using nitrogen-foamed cement could pose “significant stability challenges.”

Bartlit also said the blowout preventer was not to blame for the explosion on the drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, that killed 11 workers April 20. The report says that by the time the rig crew tried to close the blowout preventer on the sea floor, deadly gas had already slipped into the riser pipe leading to the rig.

Although the route that gas took through the well when it blew out has been a matter of uncertainty, Bartlit’s report says physical evidence taken from the well shows that oil and natural gas “almost certainly” came to the surface through a piece of equipment called the “shoe track” and up the production pipe. The report says cement in the shoe track should have blocked that flow, which it says further calls into question the quality of the cement job done by Halliburton.

Bartlit also faults Transocean, whose rig workers missed several signs of trouble in the well. Earlier alarm might have prompted them to close the blowout preventer earlier, avoiding catastrophe.

mufsons@washpost.com

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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