Money concerns didn't drive Deepwater Horizon decisions, panel counsel says

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; 8:56 PM

The chief counsel for the president's oil spill commission said Monday that he had not found any evidence that workers onshore or on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig cut corners on safety for the sake of saving money before the rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 people.

The comments about cost run counter to those of other panels investigating the accident that triggered the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Those inquiries have alleged that bad decisions by BP were driven by a desire to save money because the rig and its contractors were costing about $1.5 million a day and the exploration well was running behind schedule.

"To date, we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety," said Fred H. Bartlit, Jr., general counsel for the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

"There is a complex matrix," Bartlit said. "They want to be efficient, and they don't want to waste money, but they don't want their buddies to get killed. And I've been on a lot of rigs . . . now, this is personal, but I don't believe people sit there and say, 'This is very dangerous, but the guys in London will make more money.' "

Bartlit's comments were part of a presentation at the Grand Hyatt Hotel of tentative conclusions by the commission, headed by former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and former White House environment official William K. Reilly.

Bartlit, a litigator who has represented corporations on antitrust, patent infringement, false claims and other complex matters, also represented President George W. Bush in a Florida ballot case in the 2000 election. Bartlit defended General Motors' Allison Gas Turbine unit against charges that its engines ignited a gas cloud that killed more than 160 people on board the Piper Alpha oil rig platform in 1988. A British government report later drew on his arguments.

Although Reilly earlier Monday declared that "safety concerns took a back seat to the pursuit of the remarkable returns available offshore," Bartlit's comments drew more attention. They drove down the stock price of Anadarko Petroleum, BP's well partner. Anadarko, whose shares fell 4.28 percent Monday, has argued it is not liable for damages because of BP's negligence. (BP shares fell 1.27 percent.)

"When the culture of a company favors risk-taking and cutting corners above other concerns, systemic failures like this oil spill disaster result without direct decisions being made or tradeoffs being considered," Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement Monday.

Bartlit also said that BP's much criticized design for the well, known as the long string design, did not directly cause the April 20 accident. And Sambhav Sankar, the commission's deputy chief counsel, said that the design offered "some value over the long-term life of the well."

But they also said BP's well design posed other problems that might have indirectly contributed to the explosion.

They said that the design limited choices about how much cement could be used to seal the well and made it more difficult to boost pressure of the drilling mud without fracturing the rock formation. They also said that the long string design might have caused an accumulation of debris and drilling mud that could have interfered with a device known as a reamer shoe that plays a role in closing an important valve in the central drill pipe.

Sankar zeroed in on Halliburton tests that showed that the recipe for cement was "unstable."

"These things individually are common in the industry," Sankar said about the cementing decisions. "Taken together, they're something that should have been in the head of the design team, cementing team, and, if nothing else, should have led them to be very careful, very concerned."

Sean Grimsley, a commission investigator, zeroed in on BP's decision to set a cement plug 3,000 feet below the wellhead, and to replace drilling mud with sea water. He said the plug was unusually deep.

In the days just before the blowout, BP decided to set this cement plug only after, rather than before, the mud above it had been removed. As a result, the plug was never put in place because as the mud was removed, the well exploded.

"We think they introduced a certain amount of risk into the situation that may not have been necessary," Grimsley said.

In its defense, Halliburton blamed BP errors for undermining the cement job and, contrary to the commission, said hydrocarbons had broken through the space outside the drill pipe and pushed through the well head.

Staff writer Joel Achenbach contributed to this article.

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