Panel: Tests Warned Of Cement Flaws Before Blowout

The presidential commission studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released new details on Thursday. The findings indicate tests that Halliburton conducted before the BP spill show the cement that would be pumped down into the well would be unstable. Halliburton has said it tested the cement and it would be stable. For an update, Melissa Block talks to NPR's Richard Harris.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

A federal commission investigating the cause of the BP oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico lays new blame today on Halliburton. That's the company that prepared cement that was supposed to seal up the well before it ruptured. The oil spill commission staff says some of Halliburton's own lab tests before the April 20th disaster suggested that the cement job would fail. But the commission says Halliburton didn't highlight those results and didn't share them fully with BP.

Joining us to talk about this latest development is NPR's Richard Harris. And, Richard, of course this disaster killed 11 workers in the Gulf of Mexico. And since then we've heard a lot about cement as a possible cause of what went wrong. How did these new revelations today fit in?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, it seems that somewhere along the line, the cement at the bottom of the well did fail and it allowed more than four million barrels of oil to gush into the Gulf. So the question - and there's a lot of money riding on this - is who's to blame? Was the cement itself bad, in which case Halliburton would shoulder significant responsibility? Or was the plan for pouring it into the well bad, in which case BP would be to blame?

Now, these two companies have argued back and forth about this and this latest volley puts the ball back in Halliburton's court. And by the way, Halliburton's stock price fell on this news, while BP's is heading up.

BLOCK: And according to what the commission staff is saying today, what was wrong with the cement?

HARRIS: Well, the National Oil Spill Commission asked another company, Chevron, to mix up the cement more or less as Halliburton did. That means blending it with nitrogen gas in order to make it more fluid while it was being applied. Well, and those Chevron tests found that the mixture never really set up correctly. The commission then turned and asked Halliburton to provide its own test results and those haven't been released to the public as yet, but the spill commission says Halliburton's own tests were casting doubt on the cement's ability to set and harden at the bottom of the oil well.

They did four tests. Three of them suggested that the cement would be unstable. However, the commission says that one Halliburton test did show that the cement should set up and work.

BLOCK: And did Halliburton share that test information with BP? That's a big question.

HARRIS: It is a big question and according to the commission's letter, which was released today, Halliburton did share some of the test results with BP, but Halliburton apparently didn't highlight the results that should've been cause for concern. In fact, the commission staff says it's not clear whether Halliburton even had all the test results in hand before the cement job in the Gulf got under way.

So this is not simply a question of what the results said, but whether Halliburton was being open with BP about its findings.

BLOCK: Right. And, Richard, this is not the first time that we've heard that these cement tests might have been misleading.

HARRIS: That's true. In fact, earlier this year, BP hired another company, not Chevron, but another company that does this kind of work to try to run those same tests to mix the cement to see if they could get it to work. And BP, as previously announced, said that those results showed that the cement often didn't work. So BP, it was part of their plan to sort of say, hey, it's their fault, not ours.

BLOCK: Any response from Halliburton today?

HARRIS: There was no immediate reaction this afternoon, but a month ago, a company official testified at the National Academy of Engineering that their tests were all run according to the correct standards and they all showed that the cement would be just fine. So Halliburton said in that presentation that it actually successfully used cement mixed with nitrogen in this sort of unusual formula in 279 wells deeper than 15,000 feet.

Their argument being - this works, we know how to do it and so on. And the company at that point disputed BP's assertions that the cement formula was bad. So, one problem here is that Halliburton has declined to say exactly how its tests have been conducted. So, while other labs can try to replicate the results, they can't be sure that the results exactly match what Halliburton found.

BLOCK: Well, bottom line, Richard, does this finding from the National Oil Spill Commission, does it indicate precisely what caused the blowout of the oil well in the Gulf of Mexico?

HARRIS: Well, by now many lines of evidence point to cement failure in one way or another. But that's actually not so uncommon in oil and gas exploration. And that's why companies test the well after cement has been applied, to see if the job was a success or a failure. And if it's a failure, they just do it again. It's a common thing that happens in the oil fields.

Clearly, though, in this case, those tests to see whether the cement worked after it was applied were bungled. And then multiple other failures on the rig turned the blowout into the deadly blaze and of course the disastrous oil spill that followed. And, by the way, we should hear more about this, 'cause this whole thing is the subject of the Oil Spill Commission's next hearing, which is coming up in early November.

BLOCK: Okay. So a chain of failures you're talking about.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Richard Harris. Thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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