In report on gulf oil spill, BP spreads the blame

By Steven Mufson and David Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 9, 2010; A8

BP rolled out the results Wednesday of a four-month internal investigation into the causes of the April 20 blowout of its Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, spreading blame among its contractors and giving a glimpse of the defenses it might deploy in public and in court.

The much-anticipated report asserted that a "complex and interlinked series" of failures - of equipment, engineering and judgment - led to the surge of oil and gas that exploded on the deck of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 people, sinking the rig and triggering the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

The report was written by a team of 50 internal and external experts led by the company's head of safety and operations, Mark Bly, and the rollout Wednesday morning at a hotel in downtown Washington was labeled a "technical briefing."

But the document inevitably carries a heavy public relations element as well as legal and financial implications for BP. It arrives as the Justice Department is weighing whether to bring charges of criminal negligence against BP that could sharply increase the cost of the spill for the London-based oil giant and provide fodder for private lawsuits.

In addition, there is legislation in Congress that would effectively strip BP of the right to drill in the Gulf of Mexico. The company is haggling with the Obama administration over what pieces of collateral to offer while it is financing the $20 billion escrow fund that will be used to pay claims. And BP's main partner in the well, Anadarko Petroleum, has declared that it won't pay its share of the cleanup costs and claims because it views BP's well design and actions as reckless.

The BP report makes the case for "shared responsibility," saying that "no single factor" caused the blowout. It points to multiple failures by its contractors in maintenance, equipment and planning.

The investigation found fault with the recipe Halliburton used in its cement, with the flaps on a Weatherford International barrier device known as a float collar, and with the condition of hydraulic lines and batteries that might have sapped power from the blowout preventer made by Cameron International and operated by Transocean, making it impossible to clamp and cut through steel piping.

"Transocean was solely responsible for operation of the drilling rig and for operations safety," the report says in an appendix. "It was required to maintain well control equipment and use all reasonable means to control and prevent fire and blowouts."

The report also said Transocean and BP rig leaders jointly "reached the incorrect view" on well tests in the crucial hours before the explosion. And Bly said BP needs to reexamine the way it oversees work by its contractors.

BP's design not faulted

Yet the report absolves BP's widely criticized well design. It says the path that oil and gas followed as they escaped from the well meant that the well's casing and design - matters that could otherwise implicate BP - were not factors in the disaster. Instead, it says that if any one of eight failures of equipment or decision-making had not taken place, the blowout would not have happened.

The report not only offers new details and analysis of what went wrong, it also represents a bold declaration that BP is not going to assume more than what it considers its share of the blame for the accident. The report did not say how far up the BP corporate ladder the well problems went, and no employee was named or punished.

In a news release, BP chief executive Tony Hayward, who has barely spoken publicly since his disastrous congressional testimony in June, did not offer anything resembling a mea culpa.

Instead, Hayward, who has agreed to step down Oct. 1, said, "It is evident that a series of complex events, rather than a single mistake or failure, led to the tragedy." He added, "Multiple parties, including BP, Halliburton and Transocean, were involved."

BP's contractors fired back at the company, as did some members of Congress who think BP should shoulder responsibility for the accident and be harshly punished for the damage to the Gulf Coast's environment and economy.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that "BP is happy to slice up blame, as long as they get the smallest piece."

Transocean, the world's largest operator of deepwater drilling rigs, issued a statement saying, "This is a self-serving report that attempts to conceal the critical factor that set the stage for the Macondo incident: BP's fatally flawed well design." It added: "In both its design and construction, BP made a series of cost-saving decisions that increased risk - in some cases, severely."

Halliburton fires back

Halliburton also decried the report, in which it was faulted for using too much nitrogen in a foamlike cement mixture that BP's team said was "very likely unstable" and that one investigator compared to shaving cream going flat. The report said that Halliburton had not properly tested the cement slurry and that requests for samples from Halliburton were rebuffed. But BP asked an independent lab to create a "representative sample," based on the known design of the cement, and found through its own testing that, as investigator Kent Corsor put it, "The slurry was too thin."

Halliburton replied in a statement that "the well owner is responsible for designing the well program and any testing related to the well. Contractors do not specify well design or make decisions regarding testing procedures as that responsibility lies with the well owner."

Halliburton added that BP's report has "a number of substantial omissions and inaccuracies," but it did not say what those are.

Weatherford declined to comment.

BP said that even in the final minutes before the explosion, disaster might have been averted if the gas had been directed off the rig. Instead it was sent to a mud gas separator, which vented the gas onto the rig.

One issue that BP's critics have cited has been the company's decision to use only six instead of 21 centralizers, devices for centering the drill pipe in the well.

But the BP report said that there was no evidence of "channeling" by gas above the main oil- and gas-bearing reservoir, and that as a result the decision to go ahead with just six centralizers "likely did not contribute to the cement's failure to isolate the main hydrocarbon zones."

The BP investigatory group, in an effort to avoid internal conflicts, drew on internal drilling experts from places such as Alaska rather than the Gulf of Mexico. The group also brought in outside experts and hired third parties to conduct tests. They drew on interviews with rig workers, e-mails and data transmitted to shore.

But they lacked evidence from inside the blowout preventer, which was lifted from the sea floor Friday and is in government custody.

Though BP officials said the investigation team had been given wide authority and independence, Bly said he briefed executives and board members on several occasions. And the investigation did not address issues of the company's safety culture.

Asked whether the probe overlapped with his area of responsibility, Bly said that he dealt "at a very high level." He said, "You could say that the investigation caused me to investigate things related to me," but "it's a somewhat distant linkage."

He said he does not believe that widely cited pressures to save time and money on the expensive rig were to blame for the disaster. "My view is that we didn't see any indications that support that."

Staff writer Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.

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