No one involved in drilling aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig made decisions sacrificing safety over profit, investigators for the White House-appointed panel probing the Gulf of Mexico spill disaster have concluded.
“To date we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars over safety,” said Fred Bartlit, the panel’s counsel, during an intensely detailed all-day hearing today on the causes of the spill that began April 20.
Bartlit repeated that theme several times in the hearing, creating a different narrative from the one that dominated congressional hearings on the BP spill over the summer, during which lawmakers lambasted executives from BP, Halliburton and Transocean for making decisions prioritizing speed and cost-cutting over safety and environmental protection.
Today's highly technical hearing detailed the decisions made and actions taken in the final hours before the explosion that led to the worst oil spill in American history, killing 11 rig workers and sending 185 million gallons of oil gushing through the Gulf.
Of the three companies implicated in the spill, Halliburton came under the strongest fire today. The technical presentation focused its criticism on the process of cementing the well that Halliburton conducted.
An earlier investigation by BP concluded that Halliburton’s faulty mixing and placing of the cement plug was the chief cause of the disaster. The White House spill panel has said that it agrees with 90 percent of the BP report, and its investigation found that the cement mix failed multiple integrity tests in the days leading up to its use in the well, and that the cement plug was positioned in an unusually deep position.
“The cement job was the sole barrier between the hydrocarbons and the rig. It’s known in the industry that cement jobs are from time to time not perfect. It’s not an easy thing. Sometimes you have spaces, and you have to remediate,” Bartlit said.
“The potential vulnerability was known. But this particular cement job was never remediated.”
Representatives of the three companies contested the elements of the presentation, with Halliburton’s Gulf of Mexico regional manager for cementing, Richard Vargo, Jr., pushing pack most aggressively.
On Tuesday, the panel’s reach will broaden, as commissioners question five oil drilling experts, top officials from ExxonMobil, and Michael Bromwich, the Interior Department’s director of Ocean Energy Management, in a session expected to highlight what policy and regulation proposals will be forthcoming from the panel’s final report, due on the president’s desk in January.
“There were a lot of decisions that were difficult to explain or were just plain wrong,” said the commission’s co-chair, William Reilly. “When I think about what kind of recommendations we could make for regulations or policy, the question is whether this was a systemic issue — or a one-time anomaly. But it’s very difficult to conclude that there was not a culture of complacency here.”
The panel today presented 13 technical conclusions that insiders say already show the contours of the proposed rules and regulations likely to emerge from the investigation. Several of those conclusions note that the faulty cement may have been detected with the use of the cement evaluation tools, and insiders say the proposed regulations are, for one, almost sure to include requirements for third-party verifications of cementing.
Bartlit and the spill commissioners repeatedly brought up their frustration that the panel has been denied subpoena power by Congress. “That’s been a real burr under my saddle,” Bartlit said.
The commission chairmen said they will in the coming days make one last push to obtain subpoena power. Bartlit asked the representatives of BP, Halliburton and Transocean if they would be willing to have the panel proceed with the power to subpoena witnesses and have them testify under oath — and if they were, if they would inform the Republican senators who have opposed the subpoena process. All three told Bartlit they would get back to him.
Meanwhile, after Bartlit’s shift of the narrative and intense focus on the cement process appeared to shift some of the heat from BP to Halliburton, some in the legal community pointed out what they saw as the appearance of conflict of interest: Bartlit worked for 33 years for the firm Kirkland and Ellis, which is representing BP in the investigation — although he left the firm in 1993. The observers said they were not alleging impropriety — but some noted that the situation made for bad optics.
In a written statement, David Cohen, the spokesman for the spill commission, said, “Mr. Bartlit has been with his own firm since 1998. He is uniquely qualified for this critically important job, having played a major role in investigating the Piper Alpha North Sea Oil Platform disaster in 1989, in which 160 people died. Piper Alpha was the worst oil rig explosion disaster prior to the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion that occurred this spring. He is widely regarded for his independence and integrity.”