Video: Deepwater Horizon accident: What went wrong?

  1. Transcript of: Deepwater Horizon accident: What went wrong?

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We have been hearing a lot over this past month about blowout preventers, which in this case, of course, didn't prevent anything, and other pieces of the puzzle that may have contributed to this enormous environmental catastrophe. Tonight, though, we want to connect the dots a little more closely in this case. Our senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers , got a detailed briefing from an independent expert who has studied much of the evidence so far. He has a theory about the big picture, what went wrong here and why.

    LISA MYERS reporting: Since the night of the accident, Berkeley engineering professor Bob Bea and his team of experts have been gathering evidence and interviewing those involved, giving many of them confidentiality. Bea helped lead a similar independent investigation after Hurricane Katrina on why the levees collapsed. His voice still is affected by breathing so much mold. Bea 's spoken publicly about this accident before, but now is sharing his preliminary findings for the first time with NBC News .

    Mr. BOB BEA: There is no doubt that safety was compromised.

    MYERS: Was this accident preventable?

    Mr. BEA: Yes.

    MYERS: Bea , who has five decades of experience in the oil industry, says there was a series of problems in addition to well-documented issues with the blowout preventer. His outline lists seven steps to failure, including improper design of the well itself; improper design and execution of cementing the well; missed early warning signs, including major kicks of gas; and the fateful decision to remove heavy drilling fluid called mud from the drill column. The critical decision was the one to remove that heavy mud.

    Mr. BEA: That's based on everything we know, yes.

    MYERS: Bea also says, "Drilling and well completion operations did not meet industry standards." The well was considerably behind schedule, and Bea says some of what proved to be bad decisions were designed to save time and money at the expense of safety.

    Mr. BEA: There are time pressures that are extremely intense, and there are economic pressures that are extremely intense.

    MYERS: So you saw a lot of cutting corners?

    Mr. BEA: Sure.

    MYERS: Bea says most of the blame for the accident rests with BP and the federal government, which failed to properly oversee the project.

    Mr. BEA: These are not bad people, they were just doing dumb things.

    MYERS: A BP spokesman said the company is surprised Bea has reached conclusions based on incomplete information. With so many investigations going on, BP says it will await all the evidence before further comment on the causes of this terrible accident. Lisa Myers , NBC News, Washington.

By
updated 5/21/2010 7:40:12 PM ET 2010-05-21T23:40:12

An independent researcher investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident has released preliminary findings, based on accounts from rig employees and others, that the accident was the result of a series of mistakes and flawed decisions, which had compromised safety.

The researcher, Dr. Robert Bea, came to the nation's capital this week with that message about what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Bea's been an engineer for 57 years, with experience investigating past disasters.  An engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley, he's a co-founder of its Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, and is the Center's principal researcher.  After Hurricane Katrina, he helped lead an independent investigation into why the levees in New Orleans collapsed. 

On Thursday, Bea had a closed-door meeting in Washington with other members of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group, a group he's taken the lead in assembling to investigate the oil spill accident.  The group consists of professionals from industry and government, many participating under conditions of confidentiality. 

"There is no doubt," Bea told NBC News Senior Investigative Correspondent Lisa Myers in an interview this week, "that safety was compromised."

With few witnesses and officials with direct knowledge of what happened speaking publicly, and the results of official investigations months if not years away, Bea says that conclusion comes directly from information he and his group have already received from oil industry employees, including people who were on the Deepwater Horzizon platform when the accident occurred. 

Bea says the information includes interviews with 50 people with direct knowledge -- many under conditions of confidentiality -- and recordings of audio transmissions from the rig.  Bea says the materials total 400 hours, stored in the group's database on a UC Berkeley server. 

Bea has spoken publicly before, but yesterday, one month after the accident, released a report of his preliminary analyses based on the information gathered.

"This disaster was preventable," Bea writes, "had existing progressive guidelines and practices been followed."

The report lists what Bea believes are seven "Steps Leading to Containment Failure," also known as "blowout," including:

*improper well design
*improper cement design
*early warning signs not properly detected, analyzed or corrected
*removing the pressure barrier -- displacing drilling mud with sea water 8,000 feet below the drill deck
*flawed design and maintenance of the final line of defense – the blowout preventer

One of the early warning signs was belches or 'kicks' of methane gas, which came up from the depths of the well in the weeks before the accident.  The gas was in slushy ice forms called methane hydrates -- but was potentially explosive.  One incident was serious enough to shut the well down. 

"They had a catastrophic loss of drill fluid into the formation," Bea says.  "Gas got to the surface.  They had to bring the rig to cold operation."

Video: Prof. Bea: 'We're looking at this backwards'
From what he's learned, Bea says, workers thought the successful response to that incident had fixed the gas problem in general.

Bea also says "drilling and well completion operations did not meet industry standards."  He says the well was considerably behind schedule and some of what proved to be bad decisions were designed to save time and money at the expense of safety.  Below is an excerpt from Dr. Bea's interview with Lisa Myers:

Dr. Robert Bea: There are time pressures that are extremely intense. And there are economic pressures that are extremely intense.

Lisa Myers: So you saw a lot of cutting corners.

Dr. Robert Bea: Sure.

Bea says the worst mistake was the decision to remove heavy drilling fluid, called "mud," from the drill column, as part of the end of the normal process to close down the well.  Fine if the cements seals were working, he says.  Potentially catastrophic if they weren't.

Lisa Myers: "The critical decision was the one to remove that heavy mud?" 

Dr. Robert Bea:
"That's based on everything we know. Yes." 

The biggest underlying problem of all, Bea says, is that "we horribly underestimated the risk."

Throughout his interview with NBC News, Bea refers to the offshore drilling community as "we."  He himself was once a consultant for BP, the lease operator and owner of the oil well at the Deepwater Horizon rig.  He has worked with government regulators of the oil drilling industry for decades.  Some employees on the Deepwater Horizon the day of the accident are friends and former colleagues. 

Bea says all the companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon accident probably bear some responsibility, but that most of the blame rests with BP and the federal government, because they failed to properly oversee the project.

"These are not bad people," Bea says emphatically.  "We're just doing dumb things."

Lisa Myers: This report is damning.

Dr. Robert Bea: I hope not.  I hate damning... I hope it's constructive... I want learning to come from it.  Not just more damn pain. There's enough of that around.

After reviewing Bea's report, BP spokesman Andrew Gowers wrote in a statement to NBC News that the company is surprised Bea has so quickly reached any conclusions, based on incomplete information.  BP says with many investigations going on and so much evidence to be examined, "we think it appropriate to await those findings before further comment on the causes of this terrible accident."

Bea says he's been down this road before, after Hurricane Katrina.
He says the revelations about why the levees failed then are similar to the revelations about why the oil rig failed now.

"We had this long slide down this slippery slope of incremental bad decisions [regarding the levees]," Bea says. "This is following the same trail."

"I think we've got the outline of the picture puzzle," Bea says. "The details are still missing.  But I think we got the outline right."

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