Clarification to This Article
This article about testimony before a presidential oil spill commission said a representative for plaintiffs against the oil company BP noted that several lawyers at the law firm of the commission's general counsel, Fred H. Bartlit Jr., were doing work for Halliburton, a contractor for BP. At the time of the hearing, the law firm's Web site also listed Halliburton under the heading "Representative Clients." But the firm's managing partner, Sidney N. Herman, later said that the firm has not done any work for Halliburton "for at least five years."

'Culture of complacency' at BP set stage for oil spill, commission chief says

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By Steven Mufson
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 9:09 PM

Monday was a relatively good day for BP in the glare of oil spill inquiries. Tuesday was a bad day.

Drilling experts and corporate rivals testifying before a presidential oil spill commission blasted BP Tuesday for decisions about the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that might have removed obstacles to the April 20 blowout that led to the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

BP's final well designs were "deficient in detail," said Steve Lewis, a drilling engineer with Seldovia Marine Services, who later added that the "the operational detail in my mind was totally deficient" and "totally inadequate."

Shell Oil's chief well scientist Charlie Williams said his company typically uses three to five plugs when temporarily abandoning a well. BP used one. And John Rogers Smith, associate professor of petroleum engineering at Louisiana State University, said the way BP replaced drilling mud with seawater was "not prudent."

The commission's co-chairman William K. Reilly opened the day saying that a "suite of bad decisions" revealed "a culture of complacency" at BP as well as its main contractors Transocean and Halliburton. He concluded the day saying that the deepwater drilling disaster was the result of systemic problems, not isolated ones.

The renewed criticism of BP came one day after Fred H. Bartlit Jr., the general counsel of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, seemed to absolve BP of allegations that it let cost worries trump safety concerns. Bartlit said Monday that "to date, we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety."

The commission members backpedaled from that assessment and even Bartlit sought to explain himself. Reilly said that the commission staff "did not ascribe motive to any of those decisions." Bartlit said the commission was still investigating and could draw inferences about whether time- and money-saving measures had increased risks on the Deepwater Horizon, where 11 workers died in the April 20 explosion.

But the question of motive - whether BP was rushing to finish a costly and tardy well - hung over the entire day. A representative of a plaintiffs' attorney group noted that several lawyers at Bartlit's firm are doing work for Halliburton.

Lewis said he had seen copies of internal BP communications suggesting that the London-based oil giant was worried about finishing the Macondo oil well and moving the drilling rig to Kaskida, another Gulf of Mexico location, where a BP lease would expire by May 16 if certain work weren't done there.

"They had commitments to wells, regulatory commitments, that were required to maintain in the one case a viable lease that required well work," Lewis said.

Commission staff attempted to rebut Lewis later. Bartlit said that "we have more facts than Mr. Lewis" and that "it does not appear to us that there was a rush to get to another lease."

Commission sources and those close to BP later added that by early April BP had weighed the option of dropping a plan for work that was originally to have been done after Macondo but before Kaskida. That intermediate job would have permanently plugged the Nile well, not far from Macondo, and would have taken about a month.

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