BP Issues Report On Gulf Oil Spill Disaster

BP is releasing a 200-page assessment Wednesday, detailing the cause of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The spill ultimately put more than four million barrels of oil into the Gulf. In addition, a new federal study finds that oil is gradually disappearing, as bacteria continue to gobble it up.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's move on now to the aftermath of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, BP released its own investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the company finds plenty of blame to spread around - key phrase there. We'll talk more about that in a moment. The report identifies more than half a dozen different failures, each of which contributed to accident that killed 11 workers and put more than four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris has been covering this story. Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So what does BP say caused this accident?

HARRIS: Well, lots of things caused the accident, but it all started with bad cement. Halliburton pumped cement into the bottom of the well, and it was supposed to create a solid seal to prevent the oil and gas from coming up the well. Well, it turned out to be a difficult and complicated cement job, and it didn't go right. But cement jobs themselves are never 100 percent reliable, and there's a mechanical device at the bottom of the well that was also supposed to stop oil and gas from coming up, and it didn't work properly, either.

So - but one of the first and biggest mistakes in the whole process was engineers on the rig ran a test to see if the cement was holding. And if they'd interpreted the result of those tests correctly, they would have realized that they had a problem. But they mistakenly read the results of those tests and said, oh, everything looks OK. Let's keep going forward.

INSKEEP: Well, wait a minute. Does that mean that this disaster could have been relatively easily prevented?

HARRIS: On any one of these failure points, yes. I mean, there's so many multiple failure points. Yes. It could have been prevented at that point, absolutely. And even with - at that point, though, even without that correct assessment of the test, all was not lost. The crew started, at that point, pumping heavy fluid out of the well and replacing it with light seawater. And if they'd monitored that process more carefully, they could well have realized that oil and gas was leaking into the well, according to the BP investigation.

INSKEEP: Oh, so there were chances - when you say oil and gas leaking into the well, you mean oil and gas leaking...

HARRIS: Coming up from underground and coming into the well that there were in the process of clearing out.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK.

HARRIS: That was what caused the blowout, was the oil and gas coming up into the well unexpectedly. If people had been playing attention at that point, they would have realized that something was amiss then, and they could have actually put a stop to it then. But they didn't pay attention at that point, either. And once that oil and gas got to the surface, the rig up there, BP says it should have been diverted overboard, which could have bought the crew some more time to figure out what was going out at that point. But instead, the gas flowed right into the rig, and it apparently made its way into the engine room. And there are devices that are supposed to stop an explosion from happening, and those devices failed, also.

INSKEEP: Wow. One failure after another, any of which could have prevented this disaster. At the end, though, there is this gigantic device called a blowout preventer which is sitting on the ocean floor, there. Why didn't that work?

HARRIS: Well, the blowout preventer is going to be examined by federal investigators. It was recovered over the weekend. And there's more to be learned from that, no doubt. But BP says until that's done, they won't know the whole story. But the company did indentify a couple of failures in the blowout preventer that they believe - they already know about, one of which is there was a broken component inside the blowout preventer which prevented it from working properly. Also, part of the control system's batteries had failed. So that also contributed.

I mean, again, disaster - you know, error upon error, mistake upon mistake. And so - you know, but even, you know, even if the blowout preventer had worked, you may - there may have been the loss of life and the big catastrophe. But at that point, if they could have closed it, even with submarines under sea, they could have prevented this four million barrels of oil from flowing into the Gulf.

INSKEEP: Richard, let's remind people that you're telling us about BP's findings about what caused this disaster. It's an internal investigation. We were talking earlier this morning on the program about why BP would go the trouble of an internal investigation, and we just used that phrase spreading the blame around. Is that what's happening, here?

HARRIS: Well, BP says it did this study for its own internal purposes, like any corporate entity that made mistakes. Let's study them and see what we can learn from them. They say this is not in response to litigation. And, in fact, the inquiry's methods aren't really as strict as you might want in a courtroom. They pointed out the interviews were informal, etc., etc. So this is not part of their legal process, to spread blame. But, in fact, the report does make it clear that, you know, BP's own people failed, but so did people from their contractors, as well.

INSKEEP: Which is part of their argument, here. They're saying they're not the only company that should bare the blame for this.

HARRIS: That's right.

INSKEEP: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, giving the latest on a BP investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

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