'Lack of operating discipline' contributed to BP spill, engineers' report 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
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 1:05 AM

A panel of scientific experts studying the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has concluded that "an insufficient consideration of risk and a lack of operating discipline" contributed to the disaster, adding that key "decisions also raise questions about the adequacy of operating knowledge on the part of key personnel" on the ill-fated drilling rig.

The interim report from the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council says that a variety of failures "indicate the lack of a suitable approach for anticipating and managing the inherent risks, uncertainties, and dangers associated with deepwater drilling operations and a failure to learn from previous near misses."

The report, set for Wednesday afternoon release but reported by the Wall Street Journal, draws largely on evidence that has already emerged in the course of other inquiries into the April 20 blowout at the Macondo well. The blowout killed 11 people aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which caught fire and sank, triggering the enormous oil spill.

The committee of academics appears to have been taken aback by the education and training levels of people on the rig. The chairman of the committee is Donald C. Winter, professor in the University of Michigan's Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.

"Personnel on the Deepwater Horizon were mostly trained on the job, and this training was supplemented with limited short courses," the report said. "While this appears to be consistent with industry standard practice and current regulations … it is not consistent with other safety-critical industries such as nuclear power or chemical manufacturing."

Like the presidential oil spill commission, the National Academy of Engineering took aim at the cementing job on the Macondo well. It pointed out that there had been a loss of drilling mud in the hole, indicating probable fractures in the rock that would weaken any cementing job. It noted that the well design complicated the drilling operation, especially given that there were multiple hydrocarbon zones. It also criticized the failure to run one kind of cement test and the failure to pay any attention to bad results from another test of the cement.

With regard to rig workers' failure to determine why a critical pressure test failed, the report says their conduct "suggests a lack of onboard expertise and of clearly defined responsibilities" and "a lack of management discipline that is inconsistent with the stakes involved." That pressure test should have detected faults in cement designed to seal the well.

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