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Gulf oil spill: Top oil rig official doesn’t know who was in charge

August 23, 2010 |  2:45 pm

Who was in charge when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 crew members?

A top official from Transocean, which owned the rig and leased it to BP, could not answer that question when grilled by investigators probing the cause of the April 20 disaster.

When the mobile rig is moving, the captain is in charge of the vessel, said Paul Johnson, a Transocean rig manager told investigators. When the rig is anchored and drilling a well, a person called the "offshore installation manager" is in charge of the vessel, he said. Both are Transocean employees.

When the Deepwater Horizon exploded, the rig had been anchored. But during an emergency, the authority transfers to the captain, said Johnson, who supervised both the captain and offshore installation manager. Johnson couldn't answer whether the transfer of command took place during the emergency.

He said he didn't know who was in charge when the rig exploded because communications had been cut off. He never followed up.

Johnson later acknowledged that there's no document explaining when the command is transferred.

Johnson defended the dual-command structure, saying oil drilling is complicated and better suited to be supervised by a specialized manager.  

"Do you think the transfer of command, if it was not done properly, would that be a contributing cause to that tragedy?" asked investigator Hung Nguyen, a U.S. Coast Guard captain.

"Do I think a bad handover could cause confusion? Then, yes, I would," Johnson said.

Johnson said the dual-command structure was common in his company's deepwater operations and is a common industry practice.

He said he challenged BP on its last-minute assignment of Robert Kaluza to take co-command of BP's decision-making aboard the Deepwater Horizon just four days before the explosion. BP's officials were in charge of key decisions on drilling and closing up the well site to save it for future production.

BP ordered a veteran well site leader of the Deepwater Horizon, Ronald Sepulvado, to go back to Louisiana for routine training, and replaced him with Kaluza. Kaluza played a role in overseeing a tricky procedure to seal up the well, which can cause catastrophe if done poorly.

"We didn't know who this gentleman was. .... I asked who was Mr. Kaluza. Where did he come from?" Johnson said. "I asked about his deepwater experience during ... a critical phase of the well," he added. BP assured him Kaluza was "an accomplished well-site leader."

Kaluza has declined to testify before the panel, citing his 5th Amendment right not to produce self-incriminating testimony.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in Houston.

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