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Presidential Panel Blames Companies for 'Avoidable' Gulf Oil Spill
WASHINGTON, DC, January 7, 2011 (ENS) - Errors and misjudgments by at least three companies - BP, Halliburton and Transocean - contributed to last year's disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a U.S. presidential panel said Thursday in an advance chapter of its final report. The report concludes that the BP/Deepwater Horizon spill was "preventable" and could be traced to "a failure of management."

The bipartisan panel also laid blame on the federal government, finding that federal regulations did not address many of the key issues that led to the blowout of BP's Macondo well 40 miles southeast of the Mississippi Delta.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig ablaze in the Gulf of Mexico, April 21, 2010 (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

BP, a British company, leased the Deepwater Horizon oil rig from Transocean to drill for oil to a depth of 18,000 feet beneath the seafloor in water nearly a mile deep. Halliburton was contracted to seal the completed test well with cement.

On April 20, 2010, the blowout killed 11 workers, seriously injured 17 others, and spewed uncontrolled over four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for three months, creating the largest oil spill ever in American waters. The oil fouled hundreds of miles of shoreline and forced closure of about one-third of the gulf to fishing. Thousands of federal and contract employees worked for months on cleanup, and today restoration is far from complete.

President Barack Obama established the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling on May 22, 2010 to investigate the root causes of the spill and provide recommendations on how to prevent and mitigate the impact of any future spills that result from offshore drilling.

On Tuesday, the commission will release its final report with all the details of its extensive investigation and official recommendations to President Obama, Congress and the industry for avoiding a similar episode.

In this advance chapter, the commission warns that unless industry and government make major changes, another similar disaster could happen.

Oil Spill Commission co-chairs Bob Graham, left and William Reilly, September 28, 2010 (Photo by Stephen Willie courtesy Oil Spill Commission)

"The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again," the report states. "Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur."

Commission Co-Chair William Reilly said of the findings, "My observation of the oil industry indicates that there are several companies with exemplary safety and environment records. So a key question posed from the outset by this tragedy is, do we have a single company, BP, that blundered with fatal consequences, or a more pervasive problem of a complacent industry? Given the documented failings of both Transocean and Halliburton, both of which serve the offshore industry in virtually every ocean, I reluctantly conclude we have a system-wide problem."

Reilly, who now heads a private equity fund that invests in water and renewable energy development, led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1989-1993 in the Republican administration of President H.W. Bush.

The commission's report states, "The well blew out because a number of separate risk factors, oversights, and outright mistakes combined to overwhelm the safeguards meant to prevent just such an event from happening. But most of the mistakes and oversights at Macondo can be traced back to a single overarching failure - a failure of management."

Oil from BP's blown out Macondo well streaks the Gulf of Mexico while a controlled burn takes place, June 17, 2010. (Photo by James Davidson)

"Better management by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean would almost certainly have prevented the blowout by improving the ability of individuals involved to identify the risks they faced, and to properly evaluate, communicate, and address them," the report states.

Co-Chair Bob Graham said, "The commission's findings only compound our sense of tragedy because we know now that the blowout of the Macondo well was avoidable. This disaster likely would not have happened had the companies involved been guided by an unrelenting commitment to safety first. And it likely would not have happened if the responsible governmental regulators had the capacity and will to demand world class safety standards."

"There is nothing that we can do to bring back the lives of the men we lost that day," said Graham, a Democrat who served two terms as governor of Florida and 18 years in the U.S. Senate. "But we can honor their memory by pledging to take steps necessary to avoid repeating the fatal practices of the past."

Time and money were saved as a result of the flawed decisions the three companies made, according to the advance chapter, which states, "Whether purposeful or not, many of the decisions that BP, Halliburton, and Transocean made that increased the risk of the Macondo blowout clearly saved those companies significant time (and money)."

The commission provides many instances of engineering mistakes and management failures that resulted in the blowout:

  • Inadequate risk evaluation and management of late-stage well design decisions

  • A flawed design for the cement slurry used to seal the bottom of the well, which was developed without adequate engineering review or operator supervision

  • A "negative pressure test," conducted to evaluate the cement seal at the bottom of the well, identified problems but was incorrectly judged a success because of insufficiently rigorous test procedures and inadequate training of key personnel

  • Flawed procedures for securing the well that called for unnecessarily removing drilling mud from the wellbore. If left in place, that drilling mud would have helped prevent hydrocarbons from entering the well and causing the blowout

  • Apparent inattention to key initial signals of the impending blowout

  • An ineffective response to the blowout once it began, including but not limited to a failure of the rig's blowout preventer to close off the well
U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour testify before the commission, September 28, 2010. (Photo by Stephen Willie courtesy Oil Spill Commission)
United States Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat said today, "These findings seem to support what we’ve said all along: that the blowout was caused mainly by human error among the companies managing and servicing that particular rig, not by any faulty mechanical system or equipment failure."

Landrieu criticized the Obama administration's six month moratorium on offshore drilling in the gulf, imposed in May as a result of the oil spill, calling it "excessive, over-reactive and uncalled for."

The commission's full report, to be released January 11, will contain chapters on a history of events before and after the blowout and the need for both improved corporate and government safety rules and response practices.

It will detail challenges for restoring and protecting the Gulf of Mexico's environment, considerations regarding the Arctic and drilling "frontiers," and the commission's recommendations for avoiding another such episode. A separate report on the blowout from the commission's chief counsel also will be released.

The consequences of the spill have prompted hundreds of lawsuits, with allegations ranging from personal injury and property damages to violations of racketeering and securities law. As more damages are discovered, new claims will be filed. To keep track of the ongoing lawsuits, the Environmental Law Institute has established a database at: http://www.eli.org/Program_Areas/deepwater_horizon_oil_spill_litigation_database.cfm

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.



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