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Industry and Government Were Unprepared for BP Spill, Study says

November 22, 2010, 1:00 pm


Government and the oil industry were both thoroughly unprepared for a deepwater blowout and oil spill like the one that occurred this year in the gulf, leading to significant delays in capping the well and major environmental damage, the staff of the presidential spill commission concluded in two reports published on Monday.

While oil companies and government agencies learned valuable lessons and developed useful technology from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the country is still not fully ready to cope with a similar accident, the staff members found in papers submitted to the seven-member presidential panel. (The reports, on preparedness for the spill response and on the containment effort, can be read here and here.)

One major finding was that the oil companies, despite multibillion-dollar profits over the past several years, have devoted only minuscule amounts of money to planning to control or clean up after a significant spill.

Government, too, neglected to devote adequate personnel, money and technology to preparing for a major offshore accident, one report said. The Minerals Management Service, in particular, was vastly unprepared to deal with the BP spill and even after reorganization (and renaming as the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management), it still lags far behind in the capabilities needed to address another accident, the commission said.

“M.M.S. was the sole government agency charged with understanding deepwater wells and related technology, such as B.O.P. stacks,” the commission said in one of the reports, referring to blowout preventers, which are supposed to clamp off an out-of-control well. “Its staff did not attempt to dictate whether BP should perform an operation, to suggest consideration of other options or to determine whether an operation had a significant likelihood of success.”

The report noted that the agency had only four or five employees in Houston trying to oversee BP’s efforts to cap the runaway well and collect the gushing oil.

One M.M.S. employee told the commission that his job was like “standing in a hurricane.” Another said that BP, and the industry as a whole, had 10 times the expertise that government officials could bring to bear on undersea containment. Asked what they would do if government were to take charge of the control effort, two M.M.S. officials said they would hire a major oil company to take over the job.

4:38 p.m. | Updated Michael R. Bromwich, the director of the drilling agency, said on Monday that the agency was moving to address some of the issues raised by the commission’s staff. He said the agency had requested additional money from Congress to hire 24 more full-time employees, including engineers, petroleum geologists and other professionals, to improve oversight and speed the processing of drilling applications. He also said that he had visited the engineering programs at five college campuses in Louisiana and Texas seeking recruits for the regulatory agency.

In a summary passage in their 39-page reconstruction of the four-month effort to kill the Macondo well, the commission staff wrote: “The containment story thus contains two parallel threads. First, on April 20, the oil and gas industry was unprepared to respond to a deepwater blowout, and the federal government was similarly unprepared to provide meaningful supervision.

“Second, in a compressed time frame, BP was able to design, build and use new containment technologies, while the federal government was able to develop effective oversight capacity. Those impressive efforts, however, were made necessary by the failure to anticipate a subsea blowout in the first place,” the report concluded.

The staff members repeatedly note that the government and BP consistently underestimated the rate of flow of oil and gas from the crippled well, affecting numerous decisions about how to collect the oil and contain it at the source.

For example, they found that BP went ahead with its “top kill” attempts in late May without an accurate estimate of the flow rate. Engineers said later that if they had known the true figure, they might have modified or scrapped the project.

“In retrospect,” the report stated, “according to the government official, if BP had devoted a fraction of the resources is expended on the top kill to obtaining a more accurate early estimate of the flow rate, it might have better focused its efforts on the containment strategies that were more likely to succeed.”

The staff recommended several steps going forward:

  • Offshore operators should be required to submit detailed containment plans and prove their ability to carry them out.
  • The government needs to hire and retain qualified experts to oversee future accidents.
  • Government scientists should apply lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon accident to develop better means of gauging the rate of oil and gas discharged during a spill.
  • New technical means should be designed to monitor wells while they are being drilled and in the event of a blowout.
  • Well designs should be modified to take into account the possibility of a catastrophic blowout.
  • And all deepwater operators, including companies smaller than BP and other major oil companies, should be forced to demonstrate the capacity to respond to a major disaster and clean up after it.


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