BP too often operated on the fly in the closing days of work on its Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, adding needless risk of a blowout, investigators, experts and panel members told the U.S. presidential oil spill commission Tuesday.
They said the company hurried and made confusing last-minute changes to plans that were unusual in the complex environment of deepwater drilling. They said BP could have operated more safely if it had taken the time to get necessary equipment and materials.
"We are aware of what appeared to be a rush to completion," commission co-chairman William 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 have said they found no evidence that anyone aboard the rig or on shore made a conscious decision to sacrifice safety for money. But 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 involved in the rig — BP, Halliburton and Transocean — as "laggards" in the industry and in "need of top-to-bottom reform."
Much of the scrutiny focused on the company'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.
Monday and Tuesday marked the fifth meeting of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling since President Barack Obama ordered the inquiry. Its job is to examine the disaster, develop options for guarding against future offshore drilling spills, and submit a report by mid-January.
Experts question BP's choices
Experts questioned BP's use of a single plug in the process. Charlie Williams, a scientist with Shell Energy Resources, said Shell used a minimum of three plugs in its deepwater 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 at exploratory wells drilled in other places, experts said. The company also chose not to use mechanical plugs, devices put inside the pipe that 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."
In an interview with the BBC, former BP PLC chief Tony Hayward acknowledged that the company was unprepared for the disastrous spill and the media frenzy it ignited. He also said the firm came close to financial disaster as its credit sources evaporated.
Hayward said the company's contingency plans were inadequate and "we were making it up day to day."
"What was going on was some extraordinary engineering," he told the BBC. "But when it was played out in the full glare of the media as it was, of course it looked like fumbling and incompetence."
An April 20 explosion aboard the rig killed 11 workers and began the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and Hayward said BP was "not prepared to deal with the intensity of the media scrutiny" as oil poured into the ocean and washed up on shore.
Hayward left his post last month after taking much of the flak for BP's poor public handling of the disaster. Gaffes, including his statement that "I want my life back," were ridiculed in the U.S. media and seized on by critics of BP.
Hayward said he was "pretty angry" at the personal vilification. "If I had done a degree at RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] rather than a degree in geology, I may have done better, but I'm not certain it would've changed the outcome," he said.
He defended his much-criticized decision to take part in a yacht race with his family at the height of the crisis, saying he had not seen his son for three months and was aboard the yacht for only six hours. "I'm not certain I'd do anything different," Hayward said.
He said BP found itself unable to borrow from international investors during the spill crisis, threatening its finances, and before a meeting with Obama in June, "the capital markets were effectively closed to BP."