The 6 Crucial Errors that Led to the Deepwater Horizon Explosion


Photo credit: US Coast Guard

It's beyond well-known by now that crucial mistakes and shoddy cost-cutting measures were instrumental in bringing about the tragedy at the Deepwater Horizon drill site. But it's still rather alarming to look at them back-to-back-to-back -- New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter David Hammer probed the hundreds of hours of testimony, the innumerable legal documents, and official reports to locate the handful of key errors that were responsible for the disaster. In his report, he reveals the 5 human errors and single mechanical failure that directly lead to the BP Gulf spill. And yes, almost all of them could have been rather easily avoided.According to Hammer's comprehensive report, here's the unfortunate string of bad decisions (most of which were made to cut costs) that resulted in the spill:

No. 1: Fewer barriers to gas flow
"An internal company document from mid-April acknowledged a single, long tube running through the center of the 13,000-foot well would leave a side space for hydrocarbons to shoot up, with only one seal to stop a blowout," and computer models showed that the setup would be weak, too. The industry standard is to run a shorter tube to line the bottom of the well, which hooks into a bigger one -- which offers additional barriers to encroaching natural gas. BP saved at least $10 million by going with the cheaper design.

No. 2: Fewer centralizers to keep cement even
Haliburton's models showed that 21 cement centralizers -- devices that keep the cement even as it is poured into the well -- would be necessary to safely complete the well at Deepwater Horizon. BP officials ignored a warning that going with less posed a "severe risk" and they went with 6.

No. 3: No bond log to check cement integrity
The cement bond log is a rigorous test designed to test the integrity of a new well. An oil services firm was hired by BP to perform one, and it would have cost $30 million. But after the cement dried, and BP believed no cement had escaped, it decided to forgo the test and send the test squad home.

No. 4: Pressure test misinterpreted
In its haste to proceed with operations, BP officials deigned that a pressure test that yielded dubious results -- mud curiously leaked through the blowout preventer -- was indeed satisfactory, and continued drilling the well anyway.

No. 5: Mud barrier removed early
The last human error that set the stage for the BP spill was the result of another hasty decision: Confusion among BP officials lead to the order to replace the sturdier drilling mud barrier with one comprised of seawater -- thus displacing it -- before setting the final cement plug. The decision, which came down mere hours before the accident occurred -- is thought to have been made to save time.

No. 6: Blowout preventer failed
And the one we all know -- for reasons that nobody yet knows, the mechanical blowout preventer designed to choke the flow of oil in the case of an emergency failed to activate. And the rest is history.

In all, BP saved at least tens of millions of dollars by cutting these corners. But it's worth reading Hammer's piece to see just how each of those cost-cutting decisions were made -- too often we (certainly myself included) pounce on BP as one lone nefarious bad decision-maker and cost-cutter. But the bad decisions were made by a number of different individuals, who all felt pressure from above to hurry up the process and to save money on a well that had long gone over budget. The story also paints a pretty disturbing picture of how unregulated the whole process is, and how few checks -- other than those that are self-imposed -- there is one the drilling process.

Scary, maddening stuff.

More on the BP Gulf Spill
BP Gulf Spill May Cause Loss of 1 Million Jobs
Breaking Down the BP Gulf Spill Blame Game
BP Gulf Spill Predicted by a 1970s Board Game?

Tags: Economics | Gulf Oil Spill | Oil | Oil Spill | United States

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