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Investigators criticise culture of complacency on Deepwater Horizon

The bipartisan commission was appointed by President Barack Obama to investigate disaster in the Gulf of Mexico

WORKERS aboard the Transocean-owned Deepwater Horizon drilling rig were rushing to complete BP's Macondo well, which was about 45 days behind schedule and almost $60m over budget. But the bipartisan commission appointed by President Barack Obama to investigate disaster in the Gulf of Mexico found no evidence of a "conscious decision" to put cost considerations over safety.

In the panel's preliminary findings, the commissioners did not rule out cost, co-chairman William K Reilly said, but they "weren't prepared to attribute mercenary motives to men who cannot speak for themselves because they are not alive".

The BP-operated well exploded 20 April, killing 11 workers, injuring 17 others, sinking the rig and leaking almost 5m barrels of oil into the US Gulf. The seven-member National Oil Spill Commission was established by executive order in May to provide recommendations on how to prevent and mitigate the impact of future spills that result from offshore drilling. Reilly, former administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, co-chairs the commission with former Florida governor and former senator Bob Graham.

The panelists drew their conclusions after two days of testimony from representatives of companies involved in the incident; industry executives; regulators; technical experts; and others. Their findings agreed with many of the opinions outlined by BP following its own internal investigation.

Nonetheless, the commission had harsh criticism for BP and Transocean, as well as Halliburton, which has been blamed for installing a faulty cement seal at the bottom of the mile-deep well. This allowed gas and liquids to escape from the formation and flow to the surface, a phenomenon called a kick.

"Presentations and examinations yesterday uncovered a suite of bad decisions: failed cement tests; premature removal of muds underbalancing the well; a negative pressure test that failed, but was judged a success; [and] apparent inattention, distraction or misreading of a vital indicator that gas was rising toward the rig," Reilly said.

The number of simultaneous activities and the nature of the flow-monitoring equipment made detection of the gas kick that caused the explosion more difficult, the commissioners determined. "Nevertheless, kick indications were clear enough that if observed would have allowed the rig crew to have responded earlier," their report said. "Once the rig crew recognised the influx, there were several options that might have prevented or delayed the explosion and/or shut in the well."

The panellists drew no conclusions about the role of the blowout preventer (BOP) on the seafloor, which failed to activate automatically after the explosion. Instead, they noted that technical conclusions "should await results of forensic BOP examination and testing".

Graham added: "The problem is that there was a culture that did not promote safety and that culture failed. Leaders did not take serious risks seriously enough and did not identify a risk that proved to be fatal.

"There were multiple reasons why it would have seemed prudent to have delayed the final actions until various safety measures, some of which were within a few hours of completion, could have been available for consideration as to the wisdom of moving forward with the next step," he said.

Noting that a safety culture must be led from the top and permeate a company, Reilly condemned the companies for operating under a "culture of complacency" and called for top-to-bottom reform.

The commission, which has also been dogged by rumours of arguments between the federal agencies themselves, is continuing its investigation and has asked for the power to issue subpoenas. Only Congress can authorise that power; and although the House has voted twice to approve the move, the measures have stalled in the Senate. The commission's final report is due on 11 January. Meanwhile, the Justice Department, several Congressional committees and a joint Coast Guard-Department of the Interior board are conducting investigations of their own into the largest accidental marine oil spill in industry history.

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