WASHINGTON - BP knew its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico was a "nightmare" in the days leading up to its fatal April 20 blowout, congressional investigators said Monday, but the company "appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure."
From the company's uncommon well design to its fatal decision not to fully circulate drilling mud -- which could have cleared out pockets of gas -- and the lack of critical testing -- which could have pinpointed problems with the well's cementing -- BP had many opportunities to prevent an explosion, investigators with the House Energy and Commerce Committee have found.
Instead, the company violated industry guidelines and proceeded "despite warnings from BP's own personnel and its contractors," said the chairman of the committee, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and the chairman of the investigative subcommittee that handled the probe, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.
The investigators cite one of BP's own engineers, Brian Morel, who told his colleague Richard Miller in an e-mail six days before the explosion that "this has been (a) nightmare well which has everyone all over the place."
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By the day of the explosion, the Transocean-owned rig that was drilling the well was 43 days late for its next job, Waxman and Stupak wrote. At $500,000 in daily leasing fees, financial considerations "may have set the context for the series of decisions that BP made in the days and hours before the blowout," the two wrote in a 14-page letter to BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward that the committee released Monday.
Those decisions led to 11 deaths and the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and not only will affect the Gulf of Mexico's environment for decades but also will shape the future of deepwater offshore drilling in the U.S.
The committee will ask Hayward to address its findings Thursday, when its members look at five areas that could have contributed to the explosion.
"The common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a tradeoff between cost and well safety," Waxman and Stupak wrote. BP, their investigation found, "repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk."
The company wouldn't discuss the specifics of the letter. A BP spokesman, David Nicholas, said it would be "inappropriate to comment" until the committee met.
Thursday's hearing will be Hayward's first appearance before a congressional panel; until now, the company's head of North American operations, Lamar McKay, has been the main face of the company in front of Congress. The day before the hearing, Hayward is set to meet with President Barack Obama for the first time.
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Investigators for Waxman and Stupak found that one of the fundamental problems with BP's operation came in early April, when the company finished drilling the final section of the well 18,360 feet below sea level.
Internal company documents the investigators examined found that the company had debated whether the final 1,192 feet of the well should use a single pipe that had only two barriers keeping gas from flowing to the surface or a second option with four barriers.
Although the company's documents indicate that BP was aware of the risks of the single-pipe approach, the committee found, it applied for an amended permit with the Minerals Management Service and was granted it the same day, April 15. The decision saved the company as much as three days, the committee found.
At the same time, it found, BP was looking for time- and cost-saving measures to address its next step: centering the pipe in the middle of the borehole as it was cemented in place, a crucial step to avoid creating channels in the cement that would allow gas to flow up.
On April 15, BP told its cementing contractor, Halliburton, that it intended to use only six centralizers, attachments that center the pipe in the borehole while it's being cemented in place. The Halliburton representative, Jesse Gagliano, ran several analyses, which found that using 10 centralizers would result in a moderate gas-flow problem. Using 21 would result in a minor problem, and that's what Gagliano recommended.
The company was able to round up 15 more centralizers, but John Guide, BP's well team leader, objected to the 10 additional hours it would take to install them. Gagliano told BP that using only six centralizers probably would lead to a failure of the cement job, but the company proceeded anyway.
Time and money also played into BP's decision not to proceed with a cement bond log test, an analysis that would have determined whether the cement had bonded properly to the well pipe and surrounding formations. In their letter, Waxman and Stupak wrote that their investigation found that it would have cost $128,000 and taken another nine to 12 hours to complete the test. It cost $10,000 to cancel it, and fixing any problems the test unearthed would have cost additional time.
Finally, the committee's investigators zeroed in on two other areas: the company's failure to fully circulate drilling mud before cementing the well and a final sleeve that would have locked the wellhead in place on the seafloor. Circulating drilling mud also takes time -- as much as six to 12 hours -- but if done properly it would have allowed crews to determine whether the mud was contaminated with gas.
Again, the decision not to fully circulate the mud appears to have been based on time and money considerations, Waxman and Stupak wrote.
"Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense," Waxman and Stupak wrote. "If this is what happened, BP's carelessness and complacency have inflicted a heavy toll on the Gulf, its inhabitants and the workers on the rig."
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