What caused the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that led to the deaths of 11 workers and a catastrophic gush of oil that continues unabated to this day?
According to a thorough examination by The New York Times, it wasn’t a single event but a combination of things. Regulatory agencies granted exceptions to rules, risks accumulated with anyone addressing them and the interests of companies operating on the rig conflicted, so the person with the most clout got the final say, even if the decision made the situation more dangerous.
One of the more amazing lapses was the government’s response when, more than five weeks before the explosion, the rig experienced “kicks” – sudden pulsations of gas.
What did federal regulators do? Did they demand a halt to the operation? Oh, no. They allowed BP to delay a safety test of the blowout preventer. Really.
Here are some of the specific things that went wrong, according to the Times:
- Deepwater drilling procedures are really procedures designed for shallow water that have been jury-rigged over the years;
- Federal regulators gave permission to BP to exempt the Deepwater Horizon project from a rigorous environmental review;
- BP managers gave engineers permission to use equipment that deviated from the company’s own design and safety policies;
-Federal regulators gave BP permission to test the blowout preventer at a lower pressure than required;
- Federal regulators allowed BP to delay mandatory testing of the blowout preventer. BP asked for this because they had lost “well control”;
- The federal government didn’t require BP to create a response plan for a worst-case blowout scenario;
- The federal government didn’t require BP to keep a containment dome on site. After the explosion, BP spent two weeks building one and three days shipping it to sea;
- The rig’s “response plan” includes a Web link that leads to an Asian shopping site (I”m not making that one up. I wish I was, but I’m not);
- The federal government “highly encouraged” but did not require BP and other oil companies to have backup systems to trigger blowout preventers;
- BP used well casings that violated company safety and design guidelines despite concern by BP engineers;
- BP skipped a quality test of cement despite the fact that Halliburton, which was working on the rig, warned that BP’s use of cement violated best practices;
- More than five weeks before the explosion, the rig experienced “kicks” – sudden pulsations of gas. Despite this, regulators did not demand a halt to the operation. Instead, they allowed BP to delay a safety test of the blowout preventer.
- and finally … BP told rig workers to execute a new plan for sealing the well even though some workers said it wasn’t safe.
So there you have it. So many times along the way, someone could have – should have – stepped in and made a difference.
Everyone who is culpable in this mess should be held accountable.