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Gulf oil spill: Did BP fail to take action on technical problems?

August 23, 2010 |  1:20 pm

Federal investigators Monday suggested that BP knew of major technical problems but failed to take significant action before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, killing 11 men.

Troubling flaws aboard the oil rig were detailed Monday, the start of the fourth set of hearings by a joint panel of the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Interior. The panel is charged with determining the cause of the worst offshore oil spill disaster in history.

A key line of questioning Monday in Houston involved whether major equipment failures aboard the rig contributed to the disaster, which is believed to have occurred when a burp of natural gas shot up from underneath the seafloor, exploding in the rig. The explosion occurred despite numerous procedures that are designed to prevent such a disaster.

Investigator Hung Nguyen, a U.S. Coast Guard captain, said that a BP audit in September 2009 identified problems on board the Deepwater Horizon, including:

-- Not all relevant personnel on the rig were knowledgeable of drilling and well operation practices;

-- A review of the maintenance management system or showed there were significant overdue maintenance jobs that required in excess of 3,545 man hours;

-- No one on board the rig could account for which alarms had been overridden or for what reason;

-- Despite previous recommendations, it could not be shown whether all critical digital and analog drilling instrumentation had been calibrated.

Nguyen said such findings would have caused him "significant concern."

"With all these flaws identified within this audit, do you think it is a fundamental flaw for BP to pay [Transocean, the rig's owner] $500,000 a day knowing that there are all these problems with the rig?" panelist Jason Mathews asked Neil Cramond, BP's top official for maritime safety in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cramond said he was comfortable with how the marine safety issues were handled.

Under questioning, Cramond said that a key BP team leader in Houston, John Guide, was aware of the rig's ongoing maintenance issues.

Investigator John McCarroll asked Cramond if it was a conflict of interest that Guide was responsible both for the timely completion of exploratory oil drilling and for safety issues aboard the Deepwater Horizon, giving him an incentive to bypass time-consuming safety measures.

"If the rig is experiencing a lot of downtime due to repairs, it's obvious to me the well is not going to get drilled on time. I would think Mr. Guide would be evaluated on the basis of the well being drilled on time," McCarroll said.

It has been previously documented that the well was six weeks behind schedule, and investigators have suggested there was pressure to finish up the well-drilling operation.

Nguyen also suggested that there was a problem with the rig's dual-command structure, in which the rig's captain was in charge of the mobile floating rig when it was moving, and an offshore installation manager was in charge when the rig was anchored and drilling.

Many of the key drilling decisions are made by an offshore installation manager aboard the rig and a BP team leader in Houston, Nguyen said, leaving the captain essentially out of the loop, with "little ... awareness of what's going on in terms of risk," Nguyen said.

In a statement to reporters, BP said the company takes the results of its audits seriously, and that its workers routinely met with Transocean to review the audits and make progress on fixing the problems, with the goal to have Transocean address safety matters promptly.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in Houston

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