Nightly News   |  May 21, 2010

Deepwater Horizon accident: What went wrong?

Based on analysis of interviews with more than 40 informants, UC Berkeley engineering professor Dr. Bob Bea, an independent researcher investigating the Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident, released preliminary findings that the accident was preventable, and that most of the blame rests with BP and the federal government. NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

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.