BP and Halliburton Cut Corners, but Our Oil Addiction Doesn't Help

In the past several days, investigators have issued new findings about what led to the BP oil disaster. These accounts of risky gambles and bad decisions shine a spotlight on something most of us rarely see: the gritty details of what it takes to provide America with oil.

Last Thursday, for instance, the National Oil Spill Commission gave us a glimpse of the poorly informed design calls that got made on Deepwater Horizon rig.

The commission reported that the cement provided by Halliburton to seal the BP well was unstable—a fact that Halliburton knew from its own testing but didn’t fully report to BP.

But BP then made its own bad decision. As I recount in my book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction, BP skipped the safety test that would’ve revealed problems with the cement. The test, called a cement bond log, is considered by industry experts to be an essential backstop, especially for the kind of well casing BP used on the Macondo, because the design depends so heavily on a good cement job to prevent a blowout.

Late on the night of April 18, 2010, BP flew a special crew to the rig to perform the cement bond log. Yet at 7 AM on April 20, BP told the team they could go home without conducting the test, perhaps in order to save the $128,000 it would have cost to do it. Four hours later, the specialists boarded a BP helicopter and flew off the rig. Eleven hours later, the well exploded.

This is just one of several dubious choices BP made at the Macondo well. It may never be possible to say which one alone caused the disaster, but any one of them could have put the entire operation in jeopardy.

A new investigation conducted by PBS Frontline and ProPublica shows that these bad decisions were part of a larger pattern at BP. Its dismal record of safety violations—several times higher than other companies—came amid of a relentless drive to cut corners in order to cut costs.

We shouldn’t be surprised that corporations are trying to increase their profits. That is what they do. But what is surprising is how free BP was to do as it pleased.

We know BP will act in its own interest, but where were representatives of the American people’s interests in the Gulf—our health, fisheries, natural heritage? Where were the forces that hold polluters and bad actors in check? Where were the regulators?

I have worked closely with environmental regulators, representing them for many years. I know what conditions are required to get the job done. In the world of offshore oil drilling, those conditions didn’t exist. Dedicated regulators were grossly underfunded and stripped of effective enforcement tools, while the rest were too cozy with the industry they were charged with overseeing.

The National Oil Spill Commission reports that most regulators in the Gulf knew little about basic rig operations, including what it takes to seal a well safely. Commission Co-Chair William Reilly said inspectors freely told the commission, “We don’t know about that stuff; we have to trust the companies.”

We must do better than this. We must strengthen the safeguards needed to prevent this from ever happening again.  The Department of Interior's new drilling rule is a step in the right direction. It specifically addresses cement operations and requires that the final cement job be tested—the step BP skipped. There are similar safeguards in legislation the House passed last summer. Now the Senate must pass a companion bill to give needed protections the force of law.

But in the end, the commission’s findings are only the latest reminders of the inherent dangers of searching for oil in deeper and riskier waters. It is our need for oil—and the enormous profits that come from supplying it—that has driven energy companies to push past the limits of what’s safe. 

A study released on Monday reveals the scale of the price we pay for taking these risks. Satellite images of the Gulf spill provide evidence of the spill’s massive scale: a footprint spanning 68,000 square miles and covering an area larger than the state of Oklahoma.

We can and we must put stronger safety regulations in place. But ultimately we must break our addiction to oil and begin moving the country toward safer, cleaner, more sustainable sources of power and fuel. That’s why we hope the administration will continue its effort to set high fuel efficiency standards for cars. Clean measures like these are the only way to ensure this kind of catastrophe won't happen again.