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A 'system-wide' problem indeed

In the end, of course, it was a question of saving time and, above all, money. Even the official report into the BP gulf oil disaster has been compelled to come to this conclusion.

On 20 April 2010, the disaster killed 11 workers, seriously injured many others, and spewed over four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months, creating the largest oil spill ever in American waters.

President Obama set up a commission to investigate the causes. The first part of its report published today acknowledges: “Whether purposeful or not, many of the decisions that BP, Halliburton, and Transocean made that increased the risk of the Macondo blowout clearly saved those companies significant time (and money).”

Although this conclusion is somewhat buried amidst lots of talk about “management failure” in terms of bad communications and so on – it is inescapably the overriding cause of the disaster.

The panel found that mistakes and "failures to appreciate risk" compromised safeguards "until the blow-out was inevitable and, at the very end, uncontrollable". BP's "fundamental mistake", the panel wrote, was failing to exercise proper caution over the job of sealing the well with cement.

"Based on evidence currently available, there is nothing to suggest that BP's engineering team conducted a formal, disciplined analysis of the combined impact of these risk factors on the prospects for a successful cement job," the report reads.

The report lists a host of engineering mistakes and management failures. These include flawed procedures for securing the well and an ineffective response to the blowout once it began.

What the report also reveals is a cosy relationship between government regulators and the oil industry. The agency responsible was understaffed and didn't have the inspectors and technical analysts “who were up to the task fully."

Commission co-chair William K. Reilly said the inquiry had asked whether it was a case of a single company, BP, that “blundered with fatal consequences”, or a more “pervasive problem of a complacent industry”, adding: “I reluctantly conclude we have a system-wide problem.”

Bob Graham, former Florida governor and a co-chairman of the commission, said the findings showed the blow-out was in fact avoidable. "This disaster likely would not have happened had the companies involved been guided by an unrelenting commitment to safety first," he said.

But even he must know that the oil corporations – like any other capitalist business – are guided first and foremost by a commitment to shareholders, to the bottom line, to returns on capital invested. To profit.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
6 January 2011

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