BP's Kent Wells questioned about who had final responsibility in drilling work

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 Joel Achenbach and David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 8:12 PM

HOUSTON - Federal investigators on Thursday grilled BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells on the company's history of safety problems in the Gulf of Mexico and demanded more clarity on who at the company is ultimately responsible, and accountable, for drilling operations.

Investigators cited a 2003 letter to Wells from the federal Minerals Management Service that blasted BP for "incomplete planning, poor communication, insufficient knowledge or training, and a lack of effective supervision."

Wells, who has been a prominent company spokesman for the technical response to the Macondo gusher, defended BP's safety culture.

"We don't jeopardize safety for cost," Wells testified.

The investigators for the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (the successor agency to MMS), who for four months have been searching for the cause of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster, did not appear convinced.

They asked Wells to read aloud passages from the 2003 MMS letter. At that time, Wells was a BP executive working for the shallow-water drilling operation in the gulf. Two incidents, including a blowout that caused a rig fire, had prompted an internal BP investigation, but MMS wrote that BP had blamed the equipment involved, and the contractor, rather than taking full responsibility.

"This appears to indicate that BP does not regard its required oversight of contractor operations to the level of accountability MMS desires," the letter states. The circumstances of the incidents "have raised questions about the ability of BP to safely conduct drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico."

Capt. Hung Nguyen, the board's co-chairman, cited the 2003 incidents, a 2005 explosion at a BP facility in Texas City, Tex., that killed 15 workers, and the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and said, "That tells me there's a trend there about the safety culture of BP."

(Photo gallery of BP oil spill and cleanup)

Wells said the company reformed safety practices after the earlier incidents. Texas City, he said, was "a devastating event for us." . . . In BP, it's had a dramatic impact. We tried very diligently to show there's not a conflict between safety and cost. Never should cost get in the way of doing something safely."

For months the investigators have been concerned that it is unclear who was in charge of the Deepwater Horizon in the days and hours leading up to the April 20 explosion. BP's senior "company man" on board, Ronald Sepulvado, left the rig April 16 to attend blowout-preventer classes and had only a 30-minute overlap with his replacement, Robert Kaluza.

Kaluza, who has been subpoenaed but has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, had limited experience on the Deepwater Horizon. He was involved in the fateful decision late April 20 to continue to take heavy mud out of the well and replace it with lighter seawater, despite questionable pressure-test results. Sepulvado, meanwhile, has testified that he had turned off his cellphone and did not check e-mail after leaving the rig.

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