As federal panel probes oil spill, picture emerges of a series of iffy decisions

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has surpassed the size of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill and the Exxon Valdez. Here are some other historical spills.
By Joel Achenbach and David Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010

KENNER, LA. -- If there is no smoking gun in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is because there is smoke coming from so many places.

After months of oil-spill misery and endless recriminations about what happened and why, it is increasingly clear that the complex operation of drilling an exploratory well in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico failed in a complex way. No single decision or misstep in isolation could have caused the blowout, but any number of decisions might have prevented it had they gone the other way.

The calamity, the evidence now suggests, was not an accident in the sense of a single unlucky or freak event, but rather an engineered catastrophe -- one that followed naturally from decisions of BP managers and other oil company workers on the now-sunken rig.

Such was the theme that began to emerge from hearings this past week in Kenner, La., where a federal investigatory panel, meeting in a nondescript Radisson hotel near the New Orleans airport, questioned survivors of the April 20 explosion that killed 11 of their co-workers. Government investigators describe a situation in which BP repeatedly had to make "risk-based decisions," and in every instance chose the least expensive option even though it potentially elevated the risk. That steadily whittled away at the margin of error until there was no margin left and gas found a spark on the Deepwater Horizon.

For example, on the day of the blowout, BP managers decided to skip a typically routine, and time-consuming, "cement bond log" test that could have detected fissures in the cementing of the well. They did not use the recommended 21 "centralizers" to position the well prior to the cement job, deploying just six instead. They used the cheaper of two well designs, one with fewer barriers to rising gas but costing $7 to $10 million less.

They were also conscious of the value of mud. On the day of the explosion, the expensive drilling fluid was taken out of the well and offloaded to an adjacent boat precisely when, as it turned out, the mud was the only thing suppressing the "well from hell," as the widow of one rig worker called it.

Then there was Transocean, the company that owned the rig. Transocean didn't fix a leak earlier this year in the control pod of the blowout preventer, and the company permitted a backlog of 390 maintenance jobs, according to a September audit.

The companies involved have yet to make their cases in full. Witnesses repeatedly testified that safety was their paramount priority. Officials with each company have suggested in recent months that the culpability for the disaster lies elsewhere. BP, for example, has argued that Halliburton failed to do an adequate cement job. BP also blames Transocean, the owner of the rig, for failure to maintain its blowout preventer -- a device designed to automatically close down a well that has become dangerously unstable .

Halliburton and Transocean, for their part, point out that BP designed the well and had final say on all decisions at every stage of the process. BP's investment partner in the well, Anadarko, has declared BP's actions "reckless" and a breach of contract -- a legal argument designed to remove Anadarko's liability for the oil spill.

One event received extended treatment in the Kenner hearings. Late in the day of April 20, rig workers conducted what is known as a "negative test" on the well to see if any potentially harmful gas had invaded the well bore. It showed 1,400 pounds per square inch of pressure in the well -- a sign of gas. But for reasons that remain hotly disputed, BP managers on the rig accepted a benign interpretation of the test, and proceeded to pump the heavy drilling mud out of the well and replace it with much lighter seawater. The well soon erupted.

A BP lawyer at one point asked a line of questions hinting that the company believes that a Transocean tool pusher offered an incorrect interpretation of the negative test that downplayed the unexpected pressure in the well.

The tool pusher could not testify -- he was among the 11 who were killed in the explosion.

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