Washington – The errors and misjudgments that led to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig last spring weren’t the result just of blunders by BP and its contractors, but reflect industry-wide problems that require new regulations and standards, a presidential commission has concluded.
“The root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur,” the panel says in its final report, a chapter of which is being made public Thursday. “The missteps were rooted in systemic failures by industry management . . . and also by failures of government to provide effective regulatory oversight of offshore drilling.”
The portion of the report given to reporters late Wednesday was devoted to the specifics of the drilling of the Macondo well and didn’t specify what new regulations the commission believes the federal government should impose on drillers. But it left clear that when the entire report is made public on Tuesday, stricter government oversight would be suggested.
“Many critical aspects of drilling operations were left to industry to decide without agency review,” the report says.
The panel also blamed Congress, previous presidents and the industry for safety failings.
“Efforts to expand regulatory oversight, tighten safety requirements and provide funding to equip regulators with the resources, personnel and training needed to be effective were either overtly resisted or not supported by industry, Congress and several administrations,” the report says. “As a result, neither the regulations nor the regulators were asking the tough questions or requiring the demonstration of preparedness that could have avoided the Macondo disaster.”
The document to be made public at 12:01 a.m. Thursday is the first detailed independent account of the events that preceded the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 rig workers and triggered the largest accidental oil spill in history.
It identifies nine key errors or misjudgments that led to the explosion based on documents and testimony by officials from BP, which owns the Gulf of Mexico lease where the well was being drilled, Transocean, which BP had hired to drill the well, and Halliburton, the company that was contracted to seal the well with cement. It noted that BP had never drilled a well in that portion of the gulf before and that the well had been a difficult one because the rock formations being drilled fractured easily when too much pressure was applied. That in turn required a lighter cement mixture to seal off the well than might ordinarily have been used.
The commission said the nine key errors were:
- Deciding to use six spacers to hold the drill pipe in the center of the well bore rather than the 21 Halliburton recommended.
- Not waiting for the results of stability tests on a cement mixture before pouring it into the well.
- Not running a specialized test to be sure the cement was secure once it had been poured.
- Avoiding expensive disposal requirements by using unusual materials in the final steps of sealing the well instead of those required by industry standards.
- Removing heavy drilling mud from the drill pipe before a key plug had been set (drilling mud helps hold oil and natural gas in the well).
- Setting a surface cement plug deeper that regulations called for.
- Not installing other physical barriers that would have blocked the oil flow.
- Not recognizing the need for further tests to resolve conflicting testing information.
- Conducting too many other operations during the final efforts to seal the well.
Of the errors, the panel said BP was responsible for seven, of which six were decisions made by BP managers onshore. Halliburton and Transocean each were responsible for a single mistake — though BP might have been involved in those decisions, too, the report says.
The report identifies the individuals it felt had made the decisions, including Bob Kaluza and Don Vidrine, the two senior BP officials on the rig; John Guide, a senior BP official onshore; Jesse Gagliano, a Halliburton cement engineer, and two senior Transocean workers, Jason Anderson and Dewey Revette.
The report said it could not say with certainty why each of the mistaken decisions had been made, but noted that seven of the nine decisions saved time and money.
The involvement of all three companies in the mistakes led to the conclusion that the problems aboard the Deepwater Horizon are not limited to just the killer well.
“Do we have a single company, BP, that blundered with fatal consequences, or a more pervasive problem of a complacent industry,” commission co-chair William K. Reilly, a former head of the Environmental protection Agency, asked in a statement. “Given the documented failings of both Transocean and Halliburton, both of which serve the off shore industry in virtually every ocean, I reluctantly conclude that we have a system-wide problem.”
Co-chair Bob Graham, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Florida, said it was clear the Deepwater Horizon explosion could have been avoided.
“This disaster likely would not have happened had the companies involved been guided by an unrelenting commitment to safety first,” Graham said.