Image: Model of well bore hole shown
Saul Loeb  /  AFP - Getty Images
Fred Bartlit, chief counsel of the National Oil Spill Commission, holds a model of the BP well bore hole on Monday as he presents preliminary findings on the blowout and resulting spill at a public hearing in Washington, D.C.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/8/2010 6:44:39 PM ET 2010-11-08T23:44:39

No evidence was found that a conscious decision was made to sacrifice safety in order to save money, the presidential Gulf oil spill panel said in preliminary findings released Monday, but BP incurred "additional risk" and teams of workers — both BP and contractors — made poor judgments ahead of the April 20 well blowout and rig explosion.

Issued as 13 bullet points, the findings focus on the cement work done to seal the well once it was drilled, the tests done to check on the cement, the choices made by BP on how to temporarily plug the well, and how crew reacted in the last few hours before the blowout. A final report is due by Jan. 11.

Panel staff elaborated on the findings during presentations Monday to start a two-day hearing that included testimony from BP and its main contractors, Halliburton, which did the cement job, and Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig.

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Fred Bartlit, Jr., the panel's chief investigator, told the seven-member commission that he agreed with about 90 percent of BP's findings, although the company left out some critical details and there were other areas where the panel's probe will conflict.

The "additional risk" cited by Bartlit and his staff included the timing of BP decisions to remove heavy mud and plugs that provided barriers against any blowout.

Bartlit also challenged a narrative that has dominated the headlines and Democratic probes in Congress since the April 20 incident killed 11 and unleashed more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico: that BP made perilous choices to save money.

The Macondo well project was nearly $60 million over budget days before the explosion.

"We see no instance where a decision-making person or group of people sat there aware of safety risks, aware of costs and opted to give up safety for costs," Bartlit said. "We do not say everything done was perfectly safe. ... We studied the hell out of this."

But the two commission chairmen, in comments at the end of Monday's session, implied that even without conscious decisions to cut costs, there could have been a lack of safety concern.

"There seemed to be a compulsion to get this rig completed in that April 19-20th time period," said co-chair Bob Graham, a former U.S. senator for Florida. "As a result of that a number of things" that could have been done to better protect the well "were deferred or abandoned."

"A lot of decisions that are difficult to explain or that just look like they were plain wrong" were made, added co-chair Bill Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency chief under President George H.W. Bush.

Reilly also cited a "culture of complacency" within industry, federal agencies and even Congress, which underfunded regulatory agencies for years.

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BP's internal investigation found flaws with contractor Halliburton's cement job and the maintenance performed by Transocean on critical pieces of equipment. BP also questioned how its own employees misread a critical pressure test before the blowout.

Halliburton was on the hotseat as much as BP on Monday, clashing more often with investigators than the oil company. And the commission still hasn't dealt with the blowout preventer, a key instrument, because it is still being examined.

Bartlit revealed in a letter last month that testing on cement mixtures similar to those used in the well showed that the formula was unstable before the blowout, but BP and Halliburton used it anyway. Bartlit said the companies should have reconsidered the type of cement used in the well. Cement is an essential barrier to preventing blowouts.

BP Vice President Mark Bly said Halliburton officials were slow about testing and results. Several times during the hearing, BP and commission investigators found themselves agreeing on blaming Halliburton.

So far, the inquiry into the April 20 rig failure — which killed 11 workers and dumped 172 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — is echoing investigations into past technological disasters, such as space shuttle explosions. If there is one large problem, it is the way that all sorts of small decisions become a cascade of failures that short-circuit normal safety features.

Not everyone agrees. One of the nation's top technological disaster academics said the spill commission — appointed by President Barack Obama — was a "cover-up" from the White House. Charles Perrow, a Yale University professor who wrote the disaster sociology classic "Normal Accidents", said the investigation was overlooking BP's track record of disasters that have come after cost cutting.

"There's a long history of dollars versus safety at this organization," Perrow told The Associated Press. He referred specifically to BP's 2005 Texas City oil refinery explosion in which federal officials cited a culture of cost-cutting at the expense of safety. In 2006, BP's lack of leak detection caused a massive pipeline spill, the largest on Alaska's North Slope to date.

Reilly told the AP he went into the investigation expecting to conclude that safety was traded for dollars but didn't find that to be so. Instead, what investigators found was "a series of first challenging situations" and some choices that could go either way compounded by "hard to explain decisions."

"And they add up to a disaster," Reilly said during a break Monday.

Like BP, the panel found that the oil and gas traveled up the center of the pipe in the well, rather than up the sides — a finding that was disputed by Halliburton on Monday. The company has been criticized by the panel's investigators for pumping faulty cement and having tests in hand that showed it would fail. If the blowout started in the space between the pipe and the underground rock, Halliburton's cement would be less of a factor.

Another question is why the blowout preventer — the last defense against a runaway well — failed to block the flow of oil and gas. Bartlit said the team would await a forensic analysis before drawing conclusions. The blowout preventer is now protected evidence in a federal court case.

Bartlit and commission members said their investigation was hampered by the lack of subpoena power. A bill giving them such power is on hold in the Senate.

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University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Bob Bea, an expert in both offshore oil rigs and technological disasters, said in general he agreed with the spill commission's findings. He suggested the problem wasn't a specific safety-for-money decision made on the rig, but a lack of understanding of the dangers and trade-offs involved.

Daniel Becnel, a Louisiana lawyer suing BP and others, called the commission's finding "absolutely absurd." He also took issue with Bartlit's endorsement of BP's view of events.

"They are pasting over because they know the government is going to be a defendant sooner or later in this litigation," Becnel said.

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Democrats in Congress have focused on BP's well design, saying the company made decisions that sacrificed safety to save millions of dollars. Those choices included running a single piece of pipe from the seafloor to the bottom of the well, something called a "long string." BP also chose to use fewer centralizers, devices that hold the pipe down the center of the well for cementing.

In a June letter to then-BP CEO Tony Hayward, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., questioned at least five decisions BP made in the days leading up to the explosion.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a member of Waxman's energy panel that is investigating the spill, stood by those claims Monday.

"When the culture of a company favors risk-taking and cutting corners above other concerns, systemic failures like this oil spill disaster result without direct decisions being made or trade-offs being considered," Markey said. "What is fully evident, from BP's pipeline spill in Alaska and the Texas city refinery disaster, to the Deepwater Horizon well failure, is that BP has a long and sordid history of cutting costs and pushing the limits in search of higher profits."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Interactive: Basics about the BP investigation

Video: Commission looks into causes of spill

  1. Closed captioning of: Commission looks into causes of spill

    >>> the committee charged with reviewing america's large effort environmental disaster in history is meeting right now. nbc chief environment affairs correspondent anne thompson spent five months in louisiana while the deepwater horizon well poured millions of gallons of oil into the gulf of mexico .

    >> reporter: good morning. right now we are going through oil drilling 101. the chief counsel, fred bart let, is laying otherwise what happened on the deepwater horizon rig on days leading up to the explosion april 20th . so fa ther there are three key points. first it has found no evidence that any person made a conscious decision to choose money over safety. they said that argument which many said look, bp was trying to cut corners, that's what's caused the accident that killed 11 men apolluted the gulf of mexico have not found that conscious decision making . secondly the commission says it found that the oil did not go up the outer edge of the wellbore, if you will. but it went up the center. and that may, again, give bp a pass here because a lot of people said it was the well design that caused the accident. but they didn't -- so far the commission is not suggesting that. thirdly the commission says, remember bp 's internal report that came out in september, and many people poo-poohed it. the council said they agree with 90% of that report. it's the other 10% we expect to hear later today. we expect preliminary findings to the root causes of this accident around noon. chris?

    >> i know you'll stay on top of it all day for us. thank you so much.

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