Just hours before a deadly explosion unleashed an unprecedented oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, managers on the drilling rig had a dispute about how work would proceed, according to testimony from the rig's chief mechanic. And that testimony has raised questions about whether BP was under pressure to move on to another well.
The mechanic, Douglas Brown, told federal investigators meeting outside New Orleans on Wednesday that he attended a daily meeting of managers on the Deepwater Horizon rig the day of the explosion. He said he didn't follow all of the details that closely, but he did notice one thing: "I recall a skirmish taking place between the company man, the OIM, and the tool pusher and driller concerning the events of the day. The driller was outlining what was going to be taking place, whereupon the company man stood up and said, 'No, we have some changes to that.' "
The company man was from BP, the company that leased the drilling rig. The others were employees of Transocean, the company that operated it. The dispute involved removing drilling mud from the drill pipe prior to shutting down the well, and the impact that might have on allowing gas to seep out.
Brown said the Transocean employees eventually — but reluctantly — agreed to do what the BP official wanted. He told investigators he was in the engine room later that night when he heard gas alarms going off and the engines starting to accelerate. Then came the first of two large explosions.
In Wednesday's hearing, Brown was asked whether there was a mechanism that would automatically shut down the engines if they went too fast. He said there was.
"Did those safety devices work?" asked Jason Mathews of the Minerals Management Service. The investigation is being handled jointly by the MMS and the Coast Guard.
"I do not think so, no," Brown replied.
Mathews asked: "Is there any type of safety device on an air-intake system that would prevent gas to flow into the engine control room?"
"Yes," Brown said. But did that system function properly, in his opinion? "No."
Mathews later noted that BP had been scheduled to start using the Deepwater Horizon to drill a different well a month and a half earlier, and that it was behind schedule. He said that was costing BP more than a half-million dollars a day in leasing fees.
Mathews questioned Steve Tink, a top health and safety official with BP, about how the company balanced rig efficiency and safety when it had to pay such large amounts.
"The safest operations are the most efficient operations, so we think they go hand in hand," Tink said. "So if you have a safe operation, you have an efficient operation — that's the fundamental philosophy."
The hearings continue Thursday with more testimony from other Transocean employees.