BP cut corners, cost on doomed ‘nightmare well’

(AP)

BP took measures to cut costs in the weeks before the catastrophic blowout in the Gulf of Mexico as it dealt with one problem after another, prompting a BP engineer to describe the doomed rig as a “nightmare well,” according to internal documents released Monday.

The comment by BP engineer Brian Morel came in an e-mail April 14, six days before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that killed 11 people and has sent tens of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf in the nation’s worst environmental disaster.

The e-mail was among dozens of internal documents released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the explosion and its aftermath.

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

“The common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety,” said Waxman and Stupak. Waxman chairs the energy panel while Stupak heads a subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

“Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense,” the lawmakers wrote in the 14-page letter to Hayward. “If this is what happened, BP’s carelessness and complacency have inflicted a heavy toll on the Gulf, its inhabitants, and the workers on the rig.”

The letter, supplemented by 61 footnotes and dozens of documents, outlines a series of questions Hayward can expect when he comes before Stupak’s subcommittee on Thursday.

The hearing will be Hayward’s first appearance before a congressional committee since the explosion and sinking of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig. BP America President Lamar McKay and other officials represented the company at earlier hearings.

The letter by Waxman and Stupak focuses on details such as how to secure the final section of the deepwater well. The company apparently chose a riskier option among two possibilities — running a single string of steel casing from the seafloor to the bottom of the well, instead of hanging a steel liner with a “tieback” on top.

Despite warnings from its own engineers, “BP chose the more risky casing option, apparently because the liner option would have cost $7 to $10 million more and taken longer,” Waxman and Stupak said.

In a brief e-mail exchange, Morel and a colleague, Richard Miller, talked about the last-minute changes.

“We could be running it in 2-3 days, so need a relative quick response. Sorry for the late notice, this has been nightmare well which has everyone all over the place,” Morel wrote on April 14.

Waxman and Stupak also said BP apparently rejected advice of a subcontractor, Halliburton Inc., in preparing for a cementing job to close up the well. BP rejected Halliburton’s recommendation to use 21 “centralizers” to make sure the casing ran down the center of the well bore, they said. Instead, BP used six centralizers.

In an e-mail on April 16, a BP official involved in the decision explained: “It will take 10 hours to install them. I do not like this.” Later that day, another official recognized the risks of proceeding with insufficient centralizers but commented: “who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine.”

In spite of the well’s difficulties, “BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure,” Waxman and Stupak said.

The lawmakers also said BP also decided against a nine- to 12-hour procedure known as a “cement bond log” that would have tested the integrity of the cement. A team from Schlumberger, an oil services firm, was on board the rig, but BP sent the team home on a regularly scheduled helicopter flight the morning of April 20. Less than 12 hours later, the rig exploded.

BP also failed to fully circulate drilling mud, a 12-hour procedure that could have helped detect gas pockets that later shot up the well and exploded on the drilling rig.

A spokesman for BP could not immediately reached for comment.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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