Probe finds 3 companies violated safety rules

Herald Washington BureauSeptember 15, 2011 

WASHINGTON -- The three companies drilling the exploratory Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico all violated federal safety regulations leading up to last year’s oil spill, a federal investigation concluded in findings that could be crucial for a Justice Department investigation and numerous lawsuits surrounding the disaster.

The report by the Joint Investigative Team led by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management was critical of BP, Transocean and Halliburton, but nonetheless reserved much of the blame for BP, which had contracted with the others to drill the well and which was “ultimately responsible” for operations and safety on the rig.

In many respects, the report’s conclusions about a global failure to observe safety practices and communicate effectively in such a dangerous undertaking as drilling a deepwater well echoed findings released by earlier inquiries, including one by a presidential commission investigating the disaster.

“The loss of life at the Macondo site on April 20, 2010, and the subsequent pollution of the Gulf of Mexico through the summer of 2010 were the result of poor risk management, last-minute changes to plans, failure to observe and respond to critical indicators, inadequate well control response, and insufficient emergency bridge response training,” the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management concluded in its report.

But the fact that a government commission came to such blunt conclusions and apportioned blame increases the chances that BP, Transocean or Halliburton could face criminal charges for their role in the disaster, analysts said.

“What makes this report more significant is that it provides the views of the experts within the government about what caused the spill,” said David Uhlmann, former chief of the environmental crimes section at the Justice Department and a law professor at the University of Michigan, in an email. “It will be hard for the Department to distance itself from the findings of the Coast Guard and BOEMRE.”

The report was the result of a joint investigation set up about a week after explosions ripped through the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 men and spewing nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The two agencies each did a separate report that they issued jointly on Wednesday.

The Coast Guard’s 288-page section focused on what happened from the moment the Deepwater Horizon drilling crew reported a “well control situation” on the evening of April 20. The BOEMRE report, however, delves into the decisions made in the weeks preceding the disaster and those made that evening that converged to touch off the well blow out and rig explosion.

The BOEMRE report asserts that the three companies violated at least a half-dozen federal regulations largely governing drilling safety. It remains unclear what penalties BOEMRE would assess against the companies.

Transocean disputed the report’s criticism of its crew’s preparedness and underscored a finding that the blow-out preventer did not malfunction.

In fact, the results of a forensic examination of the destroyed blow-out preventer were among the few new details in the report. The blow-out preventer could not shear the drill pipe that sent hydrocarbons rushing up from the well, because the pipe buckled from the blow-out and settled near the inside wall of the wellbore, outside the cutting surface of the blind shear rams, the report said.

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