BP oil spill report is a start, but wait for other probes to get answers

Saturday, September 11, 2010

AS IT RELEASED its report on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill this week, BP insisted that it wasn't trying to assess blame for the disaster. That's not how it reads. The company that owns the lease to the Macondo well identified eight critical failures that led to the blowout and explosion that sunk the rig. Of those, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) argued, only partially exaggerating, BP takes explicit responsibility for only half of one.

Investigators reckon that the disaster began with an inadequate cement seal; the cement "slurry" that oil services contractor Halliburton used did not prevent oil and gas from entering the well. An anomalous pressure test indicating that the well wasn't sealed should have alerted rig workers, including BP's. But they misinterpreted the results. Once oil and gas began surging to the surface, BP says, workers from rig owner Transocean should have taken different steps to contain them. Finally, Transocean's blowout preventer failed to shut off the flow.

Critically, BP insists that its much-criticized well design wasn't a problem. That's angered Transocean, which also points out that BP declined to run a "cement bond log" to test the integrity of the cement job. Which is to say, other ongoing investigations must assess BP's account. The thrust of the narrative isn't necessarily wrong. The accident probably did result from a series of errors that can't be assigned to one actor. This makes sense, since the concurrent failure of redundant safety systems doesn't lend itself to neat explanation and easy assignment of blame. Even so, the report has to be understood in light of the company's possible legal liability, a question that it avoids addressing, and the popular perception that this was "the BP oil spill."

At least as far as the latter is concerned, it's worth remembering that BP had the responsibility to successfully monitor the operations onboard the Deepwater Horizon, including the cement job. The report admits this. As The Post's Joel Achenbach noted, what BP's investigators don't do is give a full explanation of motivation: Were BP and its contractors rushing the job to save money?

For that, for answers to the legal liability question and for confirmation of BP's narrative, the public will have to wait for independent investigations to conclude, including the presidentially chartered inquiry and a Justice Department probe. Outstanding investigations also must more fully examine the role of government regulators.

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