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Deepwater Horizon crew lost focus, suggests Gulf oil spill panel

Operators of the Deepwater Horizon rig, getting ready to move on to the next job, appeared to let their attention drift at a critical moment, hints the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

By Staff writer / November 9, 2010

Members of President Obama's National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling take part in a public hearing in Washington on Monday. From left: co-chair William Reilly, co-chair Bob Graham, Christopher Smith of the Energy Department, and Frances Ulmer.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Atlanta

At one of the most critical phases of a deep exploratory dig at the Macondo well last April, operators of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig took their eyes off the highly pressurized deposit pushing up from nearly 20,000 feet beneath the earth's surface, an independent government panel suggested Tuesday.

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The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling has found that a complex series of human, mechanical, engineering, and regulatory failures led to the tragic blowout of the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon, which caused one of the world's worst industrial oil spills.

But one of the most difficult aspects of the accident for federal investigators to fathom has been what one witness described as a common phenomenon on drilling rigs: As the ship buttons up the loose ends at the end of an exploratory drill, attentions drift toward the next job, the next adventure.

"It's a natural thing to worry about the next job at the end-of-well procedure – there's a tendency to lose focus," said Steve Lewis, an engineer with Seldovia Marine Services, responding to repeated questions about the phenomenon from deputy counsel Sam Sankar.

The Deepwater Horizon crew was in the process of temporarily abandoning the mile-deep Macondo well when the well experienced a blowout, causing an explosion that killed 11 aboard the rig. The floating drilling platform sunk two days later.

The tragedy jolted awake what the panel called "complacent" federal regulators and corporate oil explorers, all of whom are now trying to improve safety protocols and tests even as they argue over who bears the ultimate blame for what befell the Deepwater Horizon. Millions of dollars in fines and even criminal investigations of culpable officials hang in the balance.

The investigation has settled into one enduring storyline: While there's no proof that financial concerns overrode safety protocols, facts state that BP's well-plugging plans were changed at the last minute. Negative tests were downplayed. Critical warning signs from the well were either ignored or not seen by experienced crew members who knew fully the risks of deepwater drilling. These mishaps, laid on top of problems with the Halliburton-supplied concrete and the BP-designed well and plug, played into the disaster.

The commission has gone out of its way to say that it's not suggesting that the roughnecks, most of them from the US Gulf Coast, would risk their own lives or anybody else's to pad the profits of a company based in London.

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