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Gulf oil spill: BP not learning from disasters, investigator charges

August 25, 2010 | 11:51 am
Key decisions aboard the oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico were made by at least three people -- a confusing tangle of responsibility that made it virtually impossible for decisive leadership, a lead investigator said Wednesday.

The investigator, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, also voiced dismay Wednesday at a federal hearing in Houston that a top BP executive could not articulate any lessons learned from previous deadly oil refinery and drilling disasters over the last two decades.

Nguyen has repeatedly articulated his disbelief at what he characterized as a murky command structure. He said key commands made aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig weren’t made by a single commander but by a trio -- the captain and a manager, both employees of rig owner Transocean, and a well-site leader from BP, which leased the rig.

“I just don’t see how everything gets coordinated,” Nguyen said. “International regulations identify one person in charge that is accountable for and responsible for the safe operation of the vessel. ... Especially when we go into an emergency phase, it might be difficult to have an effective response.”

Panelists this week have focused on doubts about who was in charge during the disaster.“A lot of questions have been asked about who was in charge on board the Deepwater Horizon. Are you aware of that, sir?” Nguyen asked Harry Thierens, a London-based BP vice president for drilling operations.

“No,” Thierens said.

Then, when Nguyen asked Thierens if he could articulate any lessons learned from several previous deadly oil refinery and drilling disasters over the last two decades, Thierens said he could not recall them.

Nguyen expressed frustration at how a top BP drilling executive failed to answer basic questions about performing safer drilling operations.

Nguyen said many of the problems observed on the Deepwater Horizon were found aboard the Piper Alpha, an oil production platform that exploded in the North Sea in 1988, killing 167 men.

Nguyen questioned whether oil industry executives took it as a given that major loss of life on oil rigs is inevitable.

“Is it something that, you know, people say that this kind of casualty happens every 20 years?” Nguyen said. “This is what I’m seeing. There’s a lot of things that were identified 20 years ago that are still happening, right here, with the Deepwater Horizon.”

Thierens said he wasn't able to give his opinion to Nguyen because the investigation into the Deepwater Horizon disaster was incomplete. He also said that because he does not have a “thorough understanding of the chain of command,” he couldn’t offer an opinion on that subject.

Nguyen was dissatisfied by that response.

“If I go to [the Transocean or BP CEOs] and I am getting the same answer, that is not a good thing. Someone has got to be in charge. And someone has got to have an overall picture of what’s going on of not only the vessel, but for the entire whole company operation and the industry,” Nguyen said. “I just don't have that clear picture in my mind.”

Nguyen questioned whether BP was learning from the Deepwater Horizon disaster and asked if the company  had done an exercise since the April 20 disaster to see how it would respond to a future well blowout.

“I don’t know,” Thierens said.

Nguyen recalled earlier testimony from two top officials with rig owner Transocean who were confused about which company or agency took the lead in firefighting efforts after the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

“There’s confusion,” Nguyen said. “You’ve operated in the Gulf of Mexico before. Do you have any recommendations in terms of improvement to marine firefighting for oil exploration and offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico?”

“I’m not capable of forming an opinion on that,” Thierens said.

Thierens also testified that he was not notified of changes made in the blowout preventer, a key safety device on the ocean floor designed to snap shut the pipe funneling oil from below.

The unexpected alterations hampered efforts to take control of the gushing well, Thierens said.

“I ... was astonished this could have happened,” Thierens said, reading from his journal. “When I heard this news, I lost all faith in this [blowout preventer].”

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in Houston
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