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Gulf oil spill: Greed didn't trump safety, says Deepwater Horizon panel

The presidential commission investigating the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico cited a misread test as one likely cause of the disaster.

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"Why would these men not have realized that this was a bad negative pressure test?" asked Sam Sankar, deputy chief counsel of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. "Nobody in industry or in government had set forth any procedures governing what the negative pressure test is, how to conduct it, or how to interpret it."

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After the negative pressure test “success,” BP took the next steps toward "temporary abandonment" – a process that investigators said introduced "additional risk." That was because the oil company chose to set the final concrete "temporary abandonment plug" of cement at 3,000 feet below the ocean floor – instead of 300 feet, as originally planned. That unusual step required removing a far larger amount of drilling mud from the well – the weight of which was holding down the well’s oil and gas. That reduced the pressure holding back the gas, a risk not anticipated because the negative pressure test had earlier been deemed a success.

Added to those factors was the high number of activities going on about the rig at the time of the critical test and afterward. For crewmen watching flow monitoring equipment, such distractions would have made subtle instrument readings and detection of a well "kick" – the unexpected emergence of volatile gas – more difficult, investigators said.

Even so, logs show that pressure in the well was rising, a sure sign that a kick was happening. If it had been observed, it would have allowed the rig crew to respond, investigators said.

Once the rig crew recognized the influx of gas, several options were open to them that might have prevented or delayed the explosion. They could have "shut in" the well by triggering the 400-ton blowout preventer (BOP) device sitting on the ocean floor. Or, they could have diverted the gas and drilling mud overboard, thereby preventing, delaying, or limiting the impact of the explosion, investigators found.

Charges that a failed BOP was at fault must await results of a forensic examination, said Mr. Bartlit.

He cast doubt on the idea that premeditated efforts to cut costs were a primary cause of the disaster.

"As we stand here today, and we've asked everybody, we don't see a man or two men or a group of men who are making one of these decisions and they had it in their minds if we do it this way, it will be safer, if do it this way it will be cheaper, we'll do it the cheap way instead of the safe way," Bartlit said. "We haven't seen that."

While acknowledging that the Deepwater Horizon's $1.5 million-a day-operating cost was "overhanging" the heads of those on the rig, Bartlit said the research showed "a complex matrix" for decisionmaking by crew that included efficiency. But at the same time, "they don't want their buddies to be killed or themselves," he said.

"I don't believe people sit there and say, 'This is dangerous, but the guys in London will make more money,' " Bartlit said. "We don't' see a concrete situation where human beings made a tradeoff of safety for dollars."

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