Image: An aerial view of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead
HO  /  Reuters
An aerial view of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, taken May 6, 2010.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/6/2011 10:03:18 AM ET 2011-01-06T15:03:18

A request by BP to set an "unusually deep cement plug" on the Gulf oil well that subsequently exploded killing 11 people was approved by the then-Minerals Management Service in just 90 minutes, according to a presidential commission report on the disaster.

That decision was one of the nine technical and engineering calls that the commission says —  in a 48-page excerpt of its final report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press — increased the risk of a blowout.

The oil spill commission said a string of poor decisions led to technical problems that contributed to the deadly April 20 accident, which led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from BP's well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

"The blowout was not the product of a series of abberational decisions made by a rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again," the commission concluded.

"Rather, the root causes are systemic, and absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur," it added.

  1. Related content
    1. BP and others blamed in massive Gulf Spill
    2. Key spill evidence compromised by BP partners?
    3. BP official: Effort to shut Gulf well was 'late'
    4. Mud work on BP rig made tech uneasy
    5. Oil officials given sex, gifts, investigators say

BP hired the firm Halliburton to seal the Gulf well with a temporary cement plug after the exploratory rig found oil. A number of tests on the cement were carried out in the weeks running up to the disaster.

In October, a government panel said Halliburton had used flawed material to cement the well and knew that it was unstable.

In response to that finding, Halliburton vigorously defended its actions and said BP was responsible for the disaster because it did not perform a key test to determine the integrity of the cement work.

However, Halliburton later acknowledged that it had skipped doing a test on the final formulation of cement.

Four out of 13 preliminary conclusions released by the commission in November noted problems relating to the cement plug. Cement is an essential barrier to preventing blowouts.

The disaster prompted the Obama administration to introduce a moratorium on deepwater drilling.

In mile-deep seas, work is done in total darkness and near-freezing temperatures . The water pressure is enough to crush a submarine and the explosive methane gas that likely ignited on the Deepwater Horizon can be much more damaging if not properly controlled.

In the intense pressure and cold of the deep, methane hydrates exist in a slushy, crystalline form. But as methane rockets upward in a blowout, passing into lower-pressure zones, it converts to a gaseous state and gains tremendous force.

The use of heat in cementing, or sealing a well, which was under way prior to the blast, can destabilize methane hydrates at extreme depths.

Halliburton acknowledged as much in an industry presentation in 2009, calling the risks "a challenge to the safety and economics."

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the presidential commission's report focused on areas in which the agency in charge of offshore drilling has already made improvements.

"The agency has taken unprecedented steps and will continue to make the changes necessary to restore the American people's confidence in the safety and environmental soundness of oil and gas drilling and production on the Outer Continental Shelf, while balancing our nation's important energy needs," Barkoff said in a statement.

Share prices rise
The report already has the companies involved with the blown-out well and Deepwater Horizon rig pointing fingers at each other again.

  1. Most popular

However, it did not appear to be affecting their market value with London-listed shares in BP trading up 1.3 percent at 506 pence at 3:07 a.m. ET Thursday and those in Swiss-based Transocean up 2.3 percent.

BP, in a statement issued Wednesday, said the report, like its own investigation, found the accident was the result of multiple causes, involving multiple companies.

It said the company was working with regulators "to ensure the lessons learned from Macondo lead to improvements in operations and contractor services in deepwater drilling."

Video: Leaked panel report: Gulf oil spill was avoidable (on this page)

Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig being leased by BP to perform the drilling, said in response to the commission's findings that "the procedures being conducted in the final hours were crafted and directed by BP engineers and approved in advance by federal regulators."

And Halliburton also said it acted at the direction of BP and was "fully indemnified by BP."

The commission underscores its central conclusion with a quote from an e-mail written by BP engineer Brett Cocales on April 16, just days before the disaster.

The e-mail was first unearthed in an investigation conducted by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who at the time led the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"But, who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine and we'll get a good cement job," Cocales wrote, after he disagreed with BP's decision to use fewer centralizers than recommended.

Centralizers are used to center the pipe to ensure a good cement job. The cement failed at the bottom of the Macondo well, allowing oil and gas to enter it, according to investigations.

The full report is due to the president Jan. 11.

Key questions
But key questions will remain, namely: Why didn't a hulking piece of equipment that sat at the wellhead and was supposed to choke off the flow of oil in the event of a blowout do its job?

Federal investigators analyzing the blowout preventer at a NASA facility in New Orleans aren't expected to finish until February.

  1. Only on NBCNews.com
    1. OWN via Getty Images
      From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
    2. pool via Reuters file
      US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
    3. China: One-child policy is here to stay
    4. NRA: Practice Range
      New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
    5. 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
    6. AFP - Getty Images
      China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
    7. AFP - Getty Images
      French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali

The Justice Department continues its own investigation, as does a joint U.S. Coast Guard-Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement panel.

BP, Halliburton and Transocean, the three key companies involved with the well and the rig that exploded, each made individual decisions that increased risks of a blowout but saved significant time or money.

But ultimately, the Deepwater Horizon disaster came down to a single failure, the panel says: management. When decisions were made, no one was considering the risk they were taking.

The suggestion that the BP disaster may not be an isolated incident runs counter to assurances by the oil industry, which has worked hard to portray the accident as a rare occurrence.

"This clearly was a rare incident," the president of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, said Tuesday when his organization published a new report urging Congress and the Obama administration to open more areas to oil and gas drilling.

Outside experts in technological disasters were split by the report's excerpt.

They lauded the commission's focus on organizational and managerial failures instead of blaming the rig workers. But they were divided whether the panel went far enough in criticizing the companies for taking time- and money-saving shortcuts.

University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Bob Bea, who has studied and worked on offshore oil rigs for decades and is an international expert on technological disasters, lauded the panel for "articulating the hows and whys."

"This was a preventable disaster," Bea, who ran a Berkeley investigation into the accident, said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Report: BP management to blame in spill

  1. Closed captioning of: Report: BP management to blame in spill

    >>> summer's oil spill in the gulf of mexico is now assigning blame for the massive spill. we have got anne thompson who has been covering the story since it began, joining us now from washington, d.c. hey, anne, good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, ann. the presidential commission says a series of mistakes and oversights led to the disaster, mistakes that it says can be traced back to what it called a failure of industry management. in fact the commission says better management by bp , transocean and haliburton, the companies involved in drilling that well could have almost certainly prevented the accidents that killed 11 workers it goes on to say there must be significant safety improvements by both the industry and government regulators or such a disaster could happen again. in response to the report, bp says it is working on improving its deep water drilling you and transocean and haliburton insist they were acting at the direction of bp . ann?

    >> all right, anne thompson this morning, thank you again for

Timeline: Oil spill timeline

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments