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Engineering experts hit safety culture in BP spill

By Seth Borenstein
AP Science Writer / December 14, 2011
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WASHINGTON—BP and the oil industry drilling in the Gulf of Mexico lacked the proper safety attitude to handle the large risks of deep-water drilling, leading to the many bad decisions behind the nation's worst offshore spill, a panel of expert engineers said Wednesday.

Despite better safety practices, the experts worried that the improvements could fade without new steps. They pointed to NASA and how lessons the agency learned after the 1986 Challenger disaster eventually dimmed, leading to the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The report's release coincided with the government's announcement of the results of the first auction of offshore oil leases off the Gulf of Mexico since the April 2010 spill. They drew $337.7 million in winning bids for 191 tracts in the western Gulf off the coast of Texas. BP had the fourth most successful bids, 11 totaling $27.5 million, far behind ConocoPhillips' 75 winning bids.

The National Academy of Engineering, which advises the federal government, cited errors that combined to make the well platform explode and oil spill, but noted a problem with the safety culture underlying last year's 172 million gallon spill at BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.

"The industrial management involved with drilling the Macondo well had not adequately understood and coped with the system safety challenges presented by offshore drilling operations," the 136-page report said. "This raises questions about the industry's overall safety preparedness, the ability to handle the complexities of the deep-water operations, and industry oversight to approve and monitor well plans and operational practices and personnel competency and training."

That's a problem because the report called drilling in the Gulf's deep waters "some of the most complex and most risky ventures conducted by commercial enterprises."

Experts said a deficient safety culture led BP to rely on blowout preventers -- a 57-foot-tall, 400-ton system of well control devices -- as equipment that just couldn't fail.

The trouble is that even before the well blowout, "there were numerous warnings to both industry and regulators about potential failures of existing" blowout preventers, the report said. The report pointed to studies in 2001, 2002, 2004, and a 1999 well blowout and fire off the Louisiana coast.

"One needs to understand that they do not work all the time," said panel chairman Donald Winter, a former Navy secretary and engineering professor at the University of Michigan. BP and all the industry had "a misplaced confidence that the blowout preventer could provide a guarantee if you will, an insurance policy, against a blowout."

Panel member Roger McCarthy, a private engineering consultant who has investigated past oil spills, said blowout preventers are treated like drilling's circuit-breakers, but there's no safety group certifying them in the same that Underwriters Laboratories approves key electrical safety devices in homes.

Winter said the safety culture issue was apparent in the industry's attitude toward risks involved in drilling: Instead of acknowledging that there are risks and that industry officials need to make intelligent decisions comparing risk and business decisions, they had an unrealistic attitude that their actions never added risks.

Like other studies of the BP spill, the report highlighted several technical failures behind the disaster, with no lone cause. But Winter said the bad decision that was uppermost to him was the decision to abandon the well temporarily, which is normal, even though the cement poured in the well failed important pressure tests.

"Once they made the decision to basically disregard the tests," it set the chain-of-events for all that followed, Winter said.

In a statement, BP said it "has acknowledged its role in the accident and has taken concrete steps to further enhance safety and risk management throughout its global operations."

The experts do say drilling safety has improved in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We think it is indeed in fact a reasonable process to continue drilling at this point in time," Winter said at news conference. "But further improvements in safety can in fact be made and should be made."

The independence of the National Academy of Engineering means the report is likely to carry more weight in Congress than some of other investigations. Republican lawmakers have criticized prior reports by a presidential commission saying that the panel was biased.

A joint federal investigation also has inherent conflicts of interest because the committee was comprised of those who regulate the offshore drilling industry.

Since the disaster, the Obama administration has reorganized the offshore drilling agency and boosted safety regulations. But Congress has yet to pass a single piece of legislation to address safety gaps highlighted by the disaster. House Republicans, meanwhile, have passed bills to jump start offshore drilling.

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Associated Press writer Dina Cappiello contributed to this report.

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Online:

The National Academy of Engineering report: http://bit.ly/vQK3ai

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