WASHINGTON — It wasn't just the botched technical decisions. BP and other companies' management, communication and overconfidence in dealing with risk led to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, investigators for the presidential commission said Tuesday.
The commission's chief engineer, Richard Sears, outlined seven managerial findings, including muddled lines of authority and a compounding cascade of small problems that ultimately caused 11 people to die and millions of gallons of oil to spill.
"This is something that built over hours if not days, weeks, months. The companies involved each had data. They were each responsible for operations, and if data had been shared differently and operations had been carried out differently, I believe this disaster could have been prevented," Sears said. "And for whatever reason...it didn't happen that way, and it's sad."
Investigators, experts and panel members said Tuesday BP too often operated on the fly in the closing days of work on its doomed Gulf oil well, adding needless risk of a blowout.
They said the company was hurried and made confusing, last-minute changes to plans that were unusual in the complex environment of deep water. They said BP could have operated more safely if the company took the time to get the necessary equipment and materials.
"We are aware of what appeared to be a rush to completion," commission co-chairman William K. Reilly said. What is unclear, he said, is what drove people to determine they could not wait for equipment and materials to perform operations more safely.
Lawyers investigating the April 20 disaster for the commission said they would examine a series of steps where decisions saved time or money and could have increased risks. But the panel's chief counsel, Fred H. Bartlit Jr. repeated that there was no evidence that anyone involved in drilling the well consciously chose cost cutting over safety.
The panel's leaders made clear Tuesday that the findings in sum exposed a lack of safety culture on the rig, with Reilly blasting all three companies – BP, Halliburton Co. and Transocean – as "laggards" in the industry and in "need of top-to-bottom reform."
The reforms suggested by the commission included improving communication between the operating company, in this case BP, and its contractors.
"It was confusing to us as to where responsibilities lay," Sears said.
The panel's investigative team also said there needed to be clearer procedures for closing a well.
"There didn't seem to be a lot of rigor as to how these end-of-well operations were managed," said Sears, a 30-year veteran of Shell who led the technical aspects of the investigation. "This is fundamentally dangerous."
Much of the scrutiny focused on the BP's plan to temporarily plug the well, which investigators with the presidential commission say added to the risk of a blowout. Plugging the well is a procedure used to seal it off until the company comes back to produce oil and gas. BP says its actions are common throughout the industry, but numerous experts suggested otherwise Tuesday.
Several questioned BP's use of a single plug in the process. Charlie Williams, a chief scientist with Shell Energy Resources Inc., said the company used a minimum of three plugs in its deep water wells.
BP also chose to fill the well with seawater, rather than heavy drilling mud, leaving it vulnerable to an upsurge of oil and gas – a condition that is not allowed for exploratory wells drilled in other places, experts said. The company also chose not to use mechanical plugs, devices put inside the pipe that also can block oil and gas.
Many of the decisions would have required additional time and materials, said Steve Lewis, an advanced drilling technology engineer with Seldovia Marine Services who reviewed BP's drilling plans, federal permits and communications on behalf of the commission.
"I know there was pressure on these people to get done and move on," Lewis said. "The apparent shuffling and scrambling was not really necessary."
National Oil Spill Commission: http://www.oilspillcommission.gov