U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Stumberg
A forensic engineering expert testified today that oil giant BP failed to heed safety recommendations and maintained an “imbalance of protection and production” in the years leading up to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 people and released millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Testifying on behalf of a group of Gulf Coast residents and business owners, retired University of California – Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea said it was an “egregious” mistake for BP to fail to implement the latest safety processes aboard Deepwater Horizon. Bea was previously a risk management consultant for BP, and personally made many of the safety recommendations he accused the company of ignoring.
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Bea led a meticulous forensic investigation into the causes and prepared a detailed report that he referenced throughout his testimony. BP executive Lamar McKay, who was president of BP America at the time of the accident, testified later in the day that he was previously unaware of Bea’s consulting work for BP or his report on the causes of the explosion. Plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Cunningham was incredulous, repeatedly asking McKay if he didn’t “think it was important to know” what was in the report.
Bea warned BP as far back as 2001 that a lack of vigilance and personnel experience within the company increased the odds of a deadly accident. Bea continued making recommendations through 2005, telling BP that safety should be a higher priority than savings or profits.
“Money isn’t everything,” Bea wrote in a 2003 report to BP. “Process safety is expensive but lack of process safety is more expensive.”
Bea also told BP to “reward the right decision,” noting that employees were not rewarded as richly for averting major disasters as they were for boosting company profits.
Bea said he attended a BP conference in 2005 at which a group of actors presented a skit about “process safety management” as part of the keynote address. The skit showed a poor grasp of essential safety concepts, Bea said, prompting him to write in a report to BP, “You still don’t get it.”
“You have not implemented my recommendations,” Bea wrote. “Process safety is deadly serious, and you’ve turned it into a traveling roadshow.”
Bea said he made the same set of safety recommendations to BP after the Deepwater Horizon explosion as he did in the years before.
Disaster a Team Effort?
BP developed a state-of-the-art safety plan in 2008, known in the industry as an operating management system (OMS). But when Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010, BP had only implemented the new OMS at one of the seven active rigs it was operating in the Gulf, according to Bea’s report.
In a deposition read in court today, former BP CEO Tony Hayward testified “there is possible potential, undoubtedly,” that the timely implementation of the new OMS would have prevented the accident.
But McKay insisted that the OMS was in place throughout the Gulf before the accident, explaining that it contained concessions for situations that required a third party with a different OMS, such as Transocean. He testified that operations involving a subcontractor’s crew, facilities or equipment would also involve the temporary use of that subcontractor’s OMS.
Cunningham pressed McKay to concede that BP’s role as owner and operator of the well meant that well control was its sole responsibility, but McKay consistently held that BP was only “partially responsible.”
“It’s a team effort, is the way I would say it,” he said.
Every Dollar Counts
Bea said the idea that “every dollar counts” was something of a mantra at BP, and was a significant element of the company culture. The importance of this concept was laid bare in a 2009 company email written by John Guide, the BP well site leader for Deepwater Horizon.
“The DW Horizon embraced every dollar matters since I arrived 18 months ago,” Guide wrote. “We have saved BP millions and no one had to tell us.”