WASHINGTON — BP focused too much on the little details of personal worker safety instead of the big systemic hazards that led to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill and wasn’t as strict on overall safety when drilling rigs involved other companies that they hired, a government safety panel concludes.
Eleven workers were killed in the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig and about 200 million gallons of oil flowed into the Gulf from the blown-out Macondo well. The company formerly known as British Petroleum had the lease on the well, but the drilling rig was owned and operated by another company and BP has faulted drilling contractor Transocean.
That contractor-owner split made a difference in major accident prevention with the oil disaster, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board concluded in a presentation to be made in a hearing in Houston today.
“BP applied lesser process safety standards” to rigs contracted out than it does to its own facilities, safety board managing director Daniel Horowitz told The Associated Press in an interview. “In reality, both Transocean and BP dropped the ball on major accident hazards in this case.”
The oil company “did not conduct an effective comprehensive hazard evaluation of the major accident risks for the activities of the Deepwater Horizon rig or for the Macondo well” because BP’s large risk evaluation program “looked only at BP assets, NOT drilling rigs that it contracted” to other firms for operation, investigators said in the 50-page Power Point presentation.
A BP spokesman in a statement emailed to AP said the company “stepped up” and developed more rigorous safety indicators following the accident.
The safety board said when BP looked at offshore endeavors it “focused on financial risks, not process safety risks.” And after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the company’s own accident investigation report “recommended requiring hazard reviews of BP-owned and contracted rigs,” the safety board’s presentation says.
“That’s very disturbing because the Gulf of Mexico belongs to the American people,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired a different government oil spill investigation, one appointed by President Barack Obama. The Chemical Safety Board’s findings, which mostly mirror the report from Graham’s panel and another, pointed at a second standard for what BP owned and operated and what it didn’t. Graham said he didn’t know that.
“If that’s true, it’s reprehensible,” Graham told The Associated Press Monday night.
Congressional Democrats requested the safety board investigation. The panel usually investigates deadly industrial accidents and makes recommendations but has no power to regulate, much like the National Transportation Safety Board.
The panel has been criticized for its role in investigating the disaster. Transocean resisted complying with a subpoena arguing that the spill fell outside the board’s jurisdiction that involves industrial accidents onshore. An offshore rig is an ocean-going vessel that is motionless when drilling. The board also had to push to gain access to the examination of the blowout preventer, and at one point demanded that the analysis stop, saying representatives of the companies that made and maintained the 300-ton device have been getting preferential and sometimes hands-on access to it.
The board’s presentation said there is a difference between worker safety and making sure the entire rig and well are safe, and that’s where owner BP and rig operator Transocean were “inadequate.” And that same lack of focus on the bigger picture of safety bore an “eerie resemblance” to what the safety board found in its investigation of a 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 people, safety board investigator Cheryl MacKenzie said in a news release.
That federal oil spill commission report, co-chaired by Graham and former EPA chief William Reilly, and a National Academy of Engineering found similar problems.
Reducing lost time for workers and making sure they wear the right kind of boot is important, “but that really doesn’t have much to do with system safety,” said former Navy Secretary and now engineering professor Donald Winter, who chaired the National Academy of Engineering investigation. “It is fundamentally different.”