Gulf oil spill: Investigators suggest BP, rig owner cut corners on safety

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Federal investigators painted a picture Thursday that suggested BP and oil-rig owner Transocean cut corners aboard the doomed Deepwater Horizon, which exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Investigators have suggested that crew members were under pressure to finish their work aboard the floating mobile oil rig, which was trying to finish off an exploratory well, plug it so a production rig could be put into place and move on to a new site. The oil rig was weeks behind schedule.


Russ Wheatley, a panelist with the U.S. Coast Guard, highlighted persistent maintenance problems, noting a power blackout on the rig, problems with the engines and thrusters, and the failure to fix a leak in a key safety device, known as the blowout preventer, which seals off a well if control is lost.

The maintenance backlog on the Deepwater Horizon might have made it difficult for the crew to control the well, investigators implied during their questioning.

“There’s a lot of overdue-maintenance issues there,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen.

“We trust Transocean to run an effective system. ... They’re the owners of the rig. They maintain the rig,” replied John Guide, a BP team leader based in Houston who supervised BP’s two top officials aboard the oil rig. “We choose to operate under their safety management systems, because they’re the experts.”

“It seems it’s not a very good business decision,” Nguyen replied.

Guide, the BP team leader, later was asked by Wheatley whether he was satisfied with the rig’s maintenance on his last visit to the Deepwater Horizon in February.

“Yes, sir, I was,” Guide said.

Among the maintenance issues identified was the lack of a documented inspection since 2000 on the blowout preventer, which was supposed to have prevented the oil well from transforming into an uncontrollable geyser. That device, which was supposed to have been inspected every three to five years, did not work after the rig’s April 20 explosion.

Other problems identified in past audits were “multiple personnel changes that occurred in the last two years on the Deepwater Horizon” as well as problems with a computer that monitored drilling activities, which froze on occasion. Guide said the computer’s hard drive was replaced before the explosion, and he wasn’t informed of any other issues with it.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in Kenner, La.