The US presidential commission investigating the BP Gulf oil spill yesterday challenged claims made in Congress that the British oil company and others sacrificed safety to cuts cost.
In preliminary findings yesterday, the US panel’s investigators supported many of BP’s own conclusions about what led to the disaster.
The panel’s chief investigator, Fred H. Bartlit jun, announced 13 findings, many of which tallied with investigations of the blowout, including BP’s. He said he agreed with “about 90%” of the company’s own conclusions.
One finding in particular challenges the narrative that dominated headlines since the April 20 incident killed 11 and unleashed 200million gallons of crude into the Gulf: that BP made perilous choices to save money.
“We see no instance where a decision-making person or group of people sat there aware of safety risks, aware of costs, and opted to give up safety for costs,” Mr Bartlit said. Critics immediately complained. Daniel Becnel, a lawyer suing BP and others, called the commission’s finding “absolutely absurd”.
“They are pasting over because they know the government is going to be a defendant sooner or later in this litigation,” Mr Becnel said.
According to testimony before the government’s joint investigative panel, the Macondo well project was nearly $60million (£37million) over budget days before the explosion. That panel has been paying particular attention to the issue of whether money was put ahead of safety.
BP’s internal investigation found flaws with contractor Halliburton’s cement job and the maintenance performed by rig owner Transocean on critical pieces of equipment.
Democrats in Congress have focused on BP’s well design, saying BP made decisions that sacrificed safety to save millions of dollars. Those include running a single piece of pipe from the sea floor to the bottom of the well – a so-called “long string”.
BP also chose to use fewer centralisers, devices that hold the pipe down the centre of the well for cementing.
In a June letter to then BP chief executive Tony Hayward, Democrat representatives Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak questioned at least five decisions BP made before the explosion. “The common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety,” said Mr Waxman and Mr Stupak. “Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense.”
Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democrat and a member of Mr Waxman’s energy panel that is investigating the spill, stood by those claims.
“When the culture of a company favours risk-taking and cutting corners above other concerns, systemic failures like this oil spill disaster result without direct decisions being made or trade-offs being considered,” he said. “What is fully evident, from BP’s pipeline spill in Alaska and the Texas City refinery disaster, to the Deepwater Horizon well failure, is that BP has a long and sordid history of cutting costs and pushing the limits in search of higher profits.”
The president’s commission is the first independent body to weigh in. Like BP, it found the oil and gas travelled up the centre of the pipe in the well, not up the sides.
They also questioned, like BP, the interpretation of a critical test used to determine if the well was stable before the company abandoned it. The investigators said some procedures BP decided to use in that process, where a well is plugged until a company is ready to harvest oil and gas, introduced additional risk.
But its probe also left out critical elements, including why the blowout preventer – the last defence against a runaway well – failed to block the flow of oil and gas. Mr Bartlit said the team would await a forensic analysis before drawing conclusions.
The blowout preventer is now protected evidence in a federal court case into the disaster.