Panel: Dollars did not trump safety in Gulf spill

Members of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, from left, co-chair William Reilly, co-chair Bob Graham, Christopher Smith of the Energy Department, and Frances Ulmer. / AP photo


WASHINGTON (AP) " A presidentially ordered investigation of the Gulf oil spill lends support to BP's own conclusions about the disaster and challenges congressional claims that the oil company and others made decisions that sacrificed safety to cut costs.

Fred H. Bartlit, Jr., the panel's chief investigator, said Monday in a presentation to the seven-member oil spill commission that he agreed with about 90 percent of BP's findings, although the company left out some critical details and there were other areas where the panel's probe will conflict. The preliminary findings are expected to be released later Monday.

Bartlit also challenged a narrative that has dominated the headlines and Democratic probes in Congress since the April 20 incident killed 11 and unleashed more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico: that BP made perilous choices to save money.

"We see no instance where a decision-making person or group of people sat there aware of safety risks, aware of costs and opted to give up safety for costs," Bartlit said. "We do not say everything done was perfectly safe. We're saying that people have said people traded safety for dollars. We studied the hell out of this. We welcome anybody who gives us something we missed."

Daniel Becnel, a Louisiana lawyer suing BP and others over the oil spill, called the commission's findings about money not jeopardizing safety "absolutely absurd." He also took issue with Bartlit's endorsement of BP's view of events.

"They are pasting over because they know the government is going to be a defendant sooner or later in this litigation," Becnel said.

According to testimony before the government's joint investigative panel, the Macondo well project was nearly $60 million over budget days before the explosion. That panel has been paying particular attention to the issue of whether money was put ahead of safety.

BP PLC's internal investigation found flaws with contractor Halliburton's cement job and the maintenance performed by rig owner Transocean Ltd. on critical pieces of equipment. The company also questioned how its own employees misread a critical pressure test before the blowout.

Democrats in Congress have focused on BP's well design, saying the company made decisions that sacrificed safety to save millions of dollars. Those choices included running a single piece of pipe from the seafloor to the bottom of the well, something called a "long string." BP also chose to use fewer centralizers, devices that hold the pipe down the center of the well for cementing.

In a June letter to then-BP CEO Tony Hayward, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., questioned at least five 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.

"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.

After months of hearings, investigations and finger-pointing, there is still disagreement over what and whose mistakes triggered the explosion that killed 11 workers and released more than 200 million gallons of crude oil from BP's Gulf of Mexico well.

The president's commission will bring needed clarity, as the first independent body to weigh in, co-chairman Bob Graham said Monday.

Graham, a former Democratic senator and governor of Florida, described the panel's early findings as the "clearest presentation the American people have received to date about what led to this tragedy."

Bartlit said his job was not to assign blame, but to deliver a report about what happened aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig.

He started his presentation with a moment of silence for the blowout's victims.

"We will honor them if we can get to a root cause without a lot of bickering and self-serving statements," Bartlit said.

Associated Press Writer Harry R. Weber contributed reporting from New Orleans.


Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.