'Risk/reward equation' used in building gulf well, BP worker testifies

By David S. Hilzenrath and Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 27, 2010; 8:22 PM

A BP drilling engineer involved in the planning of the Macondo well declined to testify before a federal investigative panel Friday, invoking through his lawyer his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Mark Hafle, who was involved in some of the most heavily scrutinized decisions about the well, became the third BP employee to invoke his constitutional right not to answer questions from the panel. Hafle had testified in an earlier round of hearings.

As Friday's hearing proceeded, another BP employee who wrote one of the most widely derided e-mails to surface in investigations of the Deepwater Horizon disaster testified under oath and gave a more benign explanation of the document.

In an e-mail four days before the April 20 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, drilling engineer Brett Cocales addressed one of the most controversial decisions in the construction of the Macondo well, saying in part, "who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine."

In the e-mail, he went on to defend the decision based on "the risk/reward equation."

Congressional investigators have cited the decision as evidence that BP might have cut corners to save time and money. Testifying before a separate federal investigative panel in Houston on Friday, Cocales said, "Those are my words."

But he said they had nothing to do with financial considerations.

Cocales said he was weighing engineering risks associated with alternative approaches, and he thought less risk was associated with the course BP took.

At the time, he said, he thought the "worst-case scenario" was that BP would have to do remediation work on the well, not that safety would be jeopardized, he testified Friday.

But he acknowledged that there "was still a risk of channeling" - a term that refers to gaps in the cement lining between the steel well pipe and the rock formation that could give gas a path to escape.

At issue was the number of devices called centralizers installed to center the pipe in the well. Halliburton, a contractor to BP, recommended 21 but BP used six. In a report to BP two days before the explosion, Halliburton warned that with as many as seven centralizers the well could have a "SEVERE" gas flow problem.

Cocales on Friday became the fourth BP employee to testify that, before the blowout, he did not read that warning.

Nonetheless, he said he was involved in efforts to get more centralizers to the rig in the days before the disaster. He said he called a supplier April 15 and asked the supplier what he could get to the well within a day.

Extra centralizers were delivered to the rig out of BP's own inventory with the supplier, but BP decided not to use them. BP officials have said they were not comfortable with the type of centralizer that arrived. They decided not to delay work to obtain other centralizers.

A lawyer for Transocean, the company that leased the rig to BP, challenged that decision Friday.

Lawyer Brad Brian asked Cocales if he had any doubt that BP, one of the largest companies in the world, could have gotten the right type of centralizers within a few days.

"I don't know that," Cocales said.

The hearing is being conducted by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, formerly known as the Minerals Management Services.

Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, co-chairman of the investigating board, thanked Cocales for testifying.

"You're a very brave man for showing up today," Nguyen said.

Later in the day, investigators questioned BP subsea wells team leader J. Merrick Kelley about another well construction decision that leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have identified as trading safety for cost savings.

The discussion involved installation of a lockdown sleeve, a piece of equipment that holds the bottom of the steel well tubing in place. Without the lockdown apparatus, the tubing can float upward and allow hydrocarbons to rise out of the well, according to an Energy and Commerce document.

Kelley testified that none of the three people he sent to the rig to handle the installation had done one before. But that might have become a moot point, because BP decided to postpone installation of the lockdown sleeve until other procedures had been performed.

When a rush of gas turned the Deepwater Horizon into an inferno on April 20, there was no lockdown sleeve in place.

At the time, the drilling operation was more than a month behind schedule at a cost of about $1 million a day. In addition, hurricane season was approaching.

In an April 13 email to BP colleagues, Kelley seemed to anticipate resistance to installing a lockdown sleeve.

"I know you are all under pressure to finish Macondo," he wrote.

"I can also anticipate the challenge back to us about not installing the LDS with the rig to save 24 hours rig time," he wrote.

hilzenrath@washpost.com achenbachj@washpost.com

Achenbach reported from Houston.

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