09/27/2010 12:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

BP's Internal Report Doesn't Hold Up Under Academy Scrutiny

At the request of the Department of Interior, the National Academy of Engineering formed a special committee to study the causes of the blowout of BP's Mississippi Canyon Block 252 well, dubbed Macondo.  The investigation of the blowout started in June, but news was made yesterday as the committee publicly interviewed members of BP's internal investigation team for the first time, as well as other parties.  You'll recall that BP's report, described by drilling contractor Transocean as "self serving", was issued earlier this month.  You'll also recall that of the eight failures identified by BP as the causes of the blowout, BP only took partial responsibility for two, completely ignoring key issues such as casing design and circulation prior to the cement job.  BP's team, led by Mark Bly, BP Group Head of Safety and Operations, placed primary blame for the disaster on Transocean, Halliburton, and Weatherford.  Their conclusions, transferring blame to others rather than identifying the true causes, called the entire report into question.
Yesterday, during the meeting, the Academy committee criticized the report pointing out that BP drew their conclusions without interviews of all involved or even inspecting the rig, which is still on the bottom, as well as the lack of available evidence.  Najmedin Meshkati, a professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California, wondered why BP didn't investigate organizational issues and rig scheduling, which could have caused worker fatigue, contributing to the confusion prior to the well blowout.  In criticizing the BP report, Meshkati said,  
"How could you call this great work accident investigation ... and not addressing human performance issues and organizational issues and decision-making issues?"
Under questioning, about BP ignoring the confusion and possible distraction of the crew with other activities, Bly said that, 
"It wasn't intended to be anything that it isn't.  It was a good contribution and a good foundation for further work for BP itself and others." 
That's not exactly what he said about the internal report, though.  They unequivocally determined that the cement in the annulus, the cement in the shoe track, and the float equipment all failed.  They also concluded that the casing design and the fact that they didn't fully circulate the well played no role in the blowout.   While saying that new data may affect their conclusions, it was interesting that the causes they point to remain in the well, never to be recovered. 
Thomas Roth, of Halliburton, also questioned BP's conclusions that the cement failed and that the casing design didn't was not a contributing factor, saying,
"BP's well design and operational decisions compromised well integrity," said Roth. "BP proceeded with well operations without establishing well integrity. In the end, BP followed a decision tree that ignored multiple red flags."
When asked why Halliburton didn't order a halt to the operations if BP's actions were unsafe, Roth backpeddled, saying,  "We didn't see it to be an unsafe operation as it was being executed." 
This panel, stocked with engineers and scientists, is much more likely to come up with meaningful conclusions about the causes of the BP well blowout, as opposed to the President's commission, which is staffed with academians, environmentalists, and politicians.  As I am watching this morning's hearings of the President's Commission in its third session, it is becoming even more clear as, so far, testimony focused on booming and skimming and flow rate, with little time spent by witness Doug Suttles on the subsea response or causes.  As opposed to the National Academy Engineering panel, the President's panel continues to focus on investigating what happened environmentally after the blowout as opposed to seeking out the actual causes of the blowout.
The Academy panel is expected to issue a preliminary report about its findings on October 31, the day before the deepwater moratorium will be lifted.  Clearly, this will not be soon enough to affect operating policy; hopefully, since this disaster occurred, operators who resume work will make fundamental changes to operating and safety practices to lower the risk of another blowout.  My big concerns remain about fundamental design flaws in subsea BOPs and the level of training of rig personnel in kick recognition and early-sign well control.  These must be addressed to help prevent release of oil into the environment and possible loss of life.  Subsea containment procedures must also be developed in the event that well control is lost.
We're still a long way from being ready to safely operate in the deepwater, even though we will shortly resume operations.  Until new procedures and equipment are ready, it is  incumbent upon deepwater operators and their contractors to minimize risk through diligent operations and strict adherence to best practices. Bob's new book, Disaster on the Horizon, will be released on October 22. More on The Daily Hurricane Energy page.