ProPublica Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten — The Fresh Air Interview — 'Investigating Neglect at BP' ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten uncovered internal documents from BP that he says point to the company's repeated disregard for safety and environmental rules. Lustgarten says the documents indicate BP was aware of problems as early as 2001.

Reporter: Documents Show Years of BP Neglect

Reporter: Documents Show Years of BP Neglect

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ProPublica investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten uncovered a series of internal documents indicating BP repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules. His findings, published Tuesday in The Washington Post, indicate that BP was well aware of safety and maintenance issues as early as 2001.

Abrahm Lustgarten won the 2009 George Polk Award for his reporting at ProPublica on natural gas drilling. Lars Klove hide caption

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Lars Klove

Abrahm Lustgarten won the 2009 George Polk Award for his reporting at ProPublica on natural gas drilling.

Lars Klove

"[The documents are] strikingly consistent, which was the first thing that jumped out to us ..." Lustgarten tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "You start to see a couple central themes. And those were: internal criticism for a lack of accountability in the company, lack of support for workers at BP and at BP's contractors. ... [There was also] a consistent emphasis of profits over production over safety and maintenance and environmental compliance, meaning they were putting profits ahead of safety. And finally, a systematic disregard for maintenance of their equipment. It's a process that they call 'run to failure' where they would use the equipment for as long as possible while investing as little effort and money in maintaining it as possible."

Lustgarten says the findings in the internal documents are echoed in the problems that led to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We hear consistently throughout the documents about the human resources effect of how BP manages its operations," he says. "[We heard about] health, safety and environment complaints — and these punitive responses to employees who raise concerns — generally we hear that there is a culture of pushing production forward even if that meant cutting some corners."

Lustgarten is a reporter at ProPublica. He won the 2009 George Polk Award for his reporting on natural gas drilling. He has also written for Fortune, Salon, Esquire, and The New York Times.

Interview Highlights

On putting profits ahead of safety

"A 2001 report from BP mentions that the company had not been maintaining its 'as-built' design documents. And these are essentially final engineering documents and drawings to make sure equipment was built to specifications, that it was actually constructed to work the way it was originally intended to and functions properly. You ask just about anybody in the oil and gas industry or in industry outside of oil and gas, and they would describe these 'as-built' documents as absolutely crucial to properly functioning equipment and, thus, to safety. We found just a slight mention of this as a problem in 2001 in Alaska, and then it was repeated by a whistle-blower, Kenneth Abbott — who worked on a rig called The Atlantis, another BP rig. And he is also complaining that BP has not maintained 'as-built' drawings for thousands of pieces of equipment on that Atlantis rig, and, thus, the rig is not equipped to operate safely."

On the possibility that BP falsified reports

"There's a number of accusations throughout the reports — the reports themselves were very careful to diplomatically approach this topic. They start with a disclaimer that says they did not thoroughly investigate those claims and they did not reach a final conclusion. However, they go to great lengths to repeat the accusations that were made by a number of workers, and the authors of the reports tell me that the inclusion of that information in the reports themselves — given the internal culture of BP and the seriousness of that information — was a great recognition of that as an internal problem. Now, what we heard from whistle-blowers and what's mentioned in several reports ranges from what workers call 'pencil-whipping,' which is essentially going out into the field and quickly filling out inspection forms with a great deal of information faster than you could actually do if you were actually doing the inspections themselves. One whistle-blower told me that he found a colleague had conducted 2,500 inspections on a piece of pipeline over the period of a weekend. And this is in a remote area where each inspection point entails driving a pickup truck for a couple rough miles from point to point, and the volume of inspections that he reported back was simply improbable."

On problems with gas and fire sensors on the Deepwater Horizon

"The three documents we've gotten discuss gas sensors and fire sensors and the pressure valves that would set off as a result of those valves being triggered. This is something that we heard in testimony down in New Orleans about the Deepwater Horizon accident — reports that the engine room on the Deepwater Horizon rig, when there was a kickback of gas from the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon well — that the engines ran wild with the gas that filled that engine room and eventually led to an explosion. ... A gas sensor is exactly the type of equipment that would shut down that engine or may shut off the air intake valves for that engine room entirely — and might not have prevented the blowout, but could have foreseeably prevented the explosion that followed and possibly even the sinking of the rig and saved those lives."

On the regulation of BP

"BP has had difficulty in maintaining its operations and had problems throughout the years before [President George W.] Bush came into office. However, those years were notorious for relaxed oversight of the oil and gas industry and a presumption that the most efficient form of regulation was to allow the industry, to allow BP to regulate itself. So the government culture at the time was to take a step back and to trust BP's expertise and trust BP's own profit motives — to essentially safeguard their own operations. But what we see on a much broader scale is an industry that is completely intertwined with the agencies that regulate it — an industry that keeps its technological information, its guidelines and the deep technical understanding of what it does very close to chest. And government regulators can't always keep up with — and don't always have the laws to keep up with [the gas industry's expertise]. And thus, it consistently maintains the upper hand."

On regulations in the natural gas drilling industry

"In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act. This was the culmination of the Bush administration's energy policy and the meetings that Vice President Richard Cheney had under the energy task force in 2000 and 2001. The Energy Policy Act essentially created the loophole that exempted the process of hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. In some ways, it was a clarification. The Safe Drinking Water Act is intended to regulate any fluids that are injected underground. The Safe Drinking Water Act stipulated that the fluids injected for hydraulic fracturing are used in the production of a resource and are then removed — and therefore, don't constitute the disposal of fluids and therefore shouldn't be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. However you reason it, the net effect was that the exemption was created, and the EPA's authority to regulate the specific process of hydraulic fracturing was removed. Ever since 2005, the EPA has not been able to invoke federal regulations that govern what tests are done before the hydraulic fracturing process is conducted, how the process itself is conducted — or examining the impacts it has after it's been done."

On the impact of hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas

"There is essentially no scientific understanding of what happens to the fractured rock and the chemicals that are left underground after the rock is fractured. Look at a water-constrained future; a future in which reservoirs and underground aquifers are becoming more and more valuable — not just in the West but in the East. Here we have a process in which extraordinarily large volumes of chemically contaminated water — water that nobody would represent as being safe to drink or even necessarily treatable to turn into drinking water — and we're injecting it without a lot of forethought, without a lot of study and without understanding of where it goes and what its long-term ramifications might be."