Gulf commission co-chairman questions 'compulsion' to finish well

“As a result of that, a number of things that might have made the outcome different were deferred or abandoned,” the Democrat said at the end of a roughly nine-hour meeting of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.

The commission holds the second and final day of their fourth and final public meeting on Tuesday. They are set to deliver their findings Jan. 11.

“I would hope that tomorrow we’ll come to the question of just what was driving a decision on that particular narrow 24 hours,” Graham said of Tuesday’s meeting.

Graham questioned why officials didn't wait to complete the well until they knew that the cement being used to seal it was stable.

Halliburton completed the sealing of the well on April 19 with the use of a specific cement blend that the company admits had not gone through stability testing. BP too has been blamed for pumping cement into the well before it knew it was safe.

Graham said that he and commission co-chair Bill Reilly “are going to make one last effort in the next days to get subpoena authority for this commission.” Congress would need to grant that authority in the upcoming lame-duck session, but Senate Republicans have objected out of concern the panel’s membership are biased against oil and gas companies.

In his closing statement, Reilly said subpoena power is needed to tell the public that “this is the best most complete, most objective, independent report of what happened and what we should do about it.”

Democrats may argue that subpoena power is necessary given that the commission’s preliminary findings so far largely are in line with an internal probe taken by BP, the rig operator.

Fred Bartlit, the commission’s chief counsel, early on in Monday’s meeting said he and his deputy investigators on the commission’s staff “agree with about 90 percent” of BP’s internal probe.

The commission’s investigators agree with BP that oil and gas blew up through the middle of the well instead of through the annulus — the space between the drill pipe and the hole. BP has said that this suggests the explosion was not caused by the company’s design.

Halliburton's Richard Vargo, the company's cementing manager for the Gulf of Mexico region, said he disagreed with the commission staff’s conclusion about the flow of the oil and gas.

If the commission finds that the oil and gas blew up through the annulus, they could conclude that there were problems with BP’s well design. That might make the cement used by Halliburton to seal the well less of a factor.

Democrats focusing on BP’s well design suggest the company cut corners to get the well up and running and to cut costs.

BP contracted to Halliburton the task of sealing the well with cement and it is the failure of the cement used in that sealing job that has been a central tenet in the preliminary findings of the commission’s staff. For much of Monday's meeting, commission staff laid out their findings and grilled officials from BP, rig owner Transocean and Halliburton over whether they agreed with their preliminary findings.

The commission staff has not reported on the failure of the well’s blowout preventer — the last resort in preventing the rupturing of a well — because they are awaiting forensic work.

In a press briefing during a break in the meeting, Reilly said he had learned through Monday’s event and the commission staff’s investigation that there were about five questionable decisions that that led to the April 20 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon rig. “By and large what we have really heard today is a story of what appear to be several very human decisions by very competent professions who missed signals,” he told reporters.

That includes the lack of proper testing of the cement Halliburton used to seal the well as well as key pressure testing done the night of the explosion that BP and Transocean rig workers misidentified as showing no signs of danger, he said.

BP and Transocean have butted heads over which company was ultimately responsible for ensuring that the pressure testing was successful.

Transocean's director of special projects, Bill Ambrose, at Monday’s meeting said BP was ultimately responsible for interpreting whether the pressure in the well was safe.

Bartlit said this disagreement is one example why he and other commission staff need subpoena power.

Reilly, meanwhile, repeated previous statements that a “culture of complacency” by both federal and industry officials led to the April 20 disaster. This includes Congress, which he faulted for underfunding for decades the former Minerals Management Service that provided federal oversight of offshore drilling operations.