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Safety

Poor Management Led To BP Spill

Technical Findings: Long-running problems caused Gulf spill, commission finds

by Jeff Johnson
February 28, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 9

"The sad fact is that this was an entirely preventable disaster," said Fred Bartlit, chief counsel for a presidentially appointed commission to investigate the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The comments came at the release of the commission's 357-page technical report, which finds that failure to correct technical errors due to management's "poor decisions" lay at the heart of the April 20 accident in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 and resulted in the world's worst offshore oil spill.

Like the commission's more general report in January, this Feb. 17 report divides blame among three corporations: BP, the well owner; Halliburton, the technical and engineering contractor; and Transocean, the Deepwater drilling rig owner and operator (C&EN, Jan. 17, page 9).

According to the technical report, the primary cause of the accident was Halliburton's cementing job. The cement was intended to seal the well, but it was inadequate in volume and composition and therefore allowed high-pressure natural gas and oil to drive up the well to the ocean surface. The report notes that the three companies ignored ample evidence showing hydrocarbons were likely to escape and finally missed signs that hydrocarbons were in the well as the blowout occurred.

Furthermore, according to the report, a quality control consulting firm told BP in 2007 that Halliburton's lab technician assigned to the rig lacked experience and that BP's engineer had for years "worked around" Halliburton's designs. And on the accident's eve, the report notes, BP failed to oversee cementing despite Halliburton's last-minute design changes.

Adding to the accident's likelihood, BP had accepted what the report calls a "facially implausible theory" made by Transocean's personnel to explain away test results that showed the cement had failed. The report emphasizes that the accident's root cause had nothing to do with the blowout preventer, the huge device resting on the seabed floor that would have sealed the well in case of an accident. By the time the crew finally noticed a blowout was occurring and should have activated the blowout preventer, high-pressure hydrocarbons had already passed the preventer, the report says.

The technical report marks the final major report of the commission. Other investigations continue, including those of the Department of Interior, the Coast Guard, and the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board.

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