Who is to Blame for BP Gulf Oil Wellhead Blowout?

With the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill on its 28th day and counting, some answers are finally beginning to emerge regarding how it happened and who might be responsible. Unfortunately, even the best answers raise more questions than they put to rest, and the worst seem to be the result of obfuscation, uncertainty, and outright collusion.

For example, a recent report from the Wall Street Journal indicates that the final showdown on procedure (before the blowout) was between Transocean’s rig manager, Jimmy Wayne Harrell , who reportedly got his marching order direct from BP, and Donald Vidrine, the top executive from BP aboard the oil rig.

Harrell said BP had given him precise instructions regarding taking out the drilling mud and testing for gas seepage before cementing the well. Vidrine reportedly told Harrell it was not the right way to go about closing off the oil pipeline.

Of course, most of this debate occurred behind closed doors, so no one knows who won the argument. Judging by the millions of gallons that have flooded the Gulf of Mexico since, and will probably curtail fishing for at least a decade, no one really won at all.

What is known is that a late-evening pressure test hinted at gas seepage, and the removal of more mud (reportedly by BP) resulted in a blowout at 11 p.m. Eastern time on April 20. The rig subsequently caught fire, and two days later, on April 22 , the rig sank into the ocean.

There were contributing factors to this environmental disaster. Ignorance is certainly one, hubris another. But greed is the underlying cause. In this latter category, BP’s refusal to spend $500,000 to install a deep-water valve , and its equally shortsighted pass on installing an acoustic switch , a remote control failsafe device costing about the same, shows the oil company’s focus on profits over human life.

The one device BP did install, a so-called “dead-man switch”, was likely (dare I say it?) a cheap, foreign knockoff. It certainly didn’t work as designed.

On the issue of hubris, which some prefer to call chutzpah, at least one worker who was on the rig before it sank and reportedly handled drilling records  says BP was drilling deeper than 22,000 feet , in spite of – or in defiance of – a U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) permit that limited exploratory drilling to 20,000 feet. The MMS is part of the safety enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Other workers have stated that rig managers from both Transocean and BP appeared to be rushing to complete procedures that would allow them to disengage from the pipeline and move the rig to a new drilling spot, because time is money, particularly in the oil game. This move, some say, could have precipitated the blowout.

Whatever the causes, and we may never know the whole truth, the blown tap is reportedly putting 200,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of Louisiana sweet crude oil into Gulf waters every day of crude per day into the waters of the Gulf. Estimates from BP and the Coast Guard suggest the leak is closer to 210,000 gallons , which might seem picayune until one considers that 10,000 gallons per day is the equivalent of the April 2009 Revere heating oil spill in Massachusetts Bay … times 27!

By May 5, entities like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, ventured to suggest that the situation could get worse before it got better; though the getting better part was admittedly nine parts hope and one part science.

According to NOAA reports, the leak could swell by “orders of magnitude”. Most interpreted that to mean ten times as much; the NOAA did not offer such a definition itself, but 10 days later the New York Times reported on scientists working in the Gulf finding enormous oil plumes – “enormous” defined as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick.

Many people took the report as indicating that both the U.S. government and BP had underestimated the amount of crude flowing into Gulf waters. And, indeed, scientists from several U.S. universities aboard the research vessel Pelican , which went into the Gulf off Cocodrie, Louisiana on May 3, say that the flow, at its upper range, may be as much as 80,000 barrels, or 3.4 million gallons, per day.

On May 17, the Oil Drum reported that BP was able to insert a six-inch pipe into the broken section rising from the leaking well, and is capturing some portion of the oil and storing it in a tanker. This, after attempts to cap the well with a cement-and-steel dome failed when the object became encrusted in ice crystals; this made the dome too buoyant to lower over the gushing bore hole.

In addition, the chemical dispersants BP has been using may be preventing the worst of the spill from reaching the surface of the Gulf, leading experts to suggest that the worst of the environmental disaster may be invisible. Not to mention the fact that the dispersant, Corexit, made by former Exxon Mobil subsidiary Nalco Co. (on whose board sit executives from BP and Exxon), is more toxic than others available on the market, and less effective in tackling southern Louisiana crude. In spite of that, BP has purchased (or intends to purchase) more than one million gallons.

Experts also fear that the spill may spread far enough to be carried by a major ocean current to the Florida Keys, a wildlife haven and eco-tourist attraction par excellence, and from there all the way up the Atlantic Coast. Others speculate that the oil industry’s knowledge of deepwater drilling and remediation is so deficient that the oil could continue to flow for years .

On Monday, May 17, Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, admitted that the federal government doesn’t have the systems or the savvy to tackle an oil spill at 5,000 feet, and has to rely on the oil companies to fix them.

The next day, in the first fallout from the disaster – at least in official terms – saw Chris Oynes, the chief of offshore drilling for the MMS, offering his resignation.

The message this sends to the American people is that they have no recourse against corporations, particularly those vested in oil and gas, because the bottom line for most of these multinational giants is, and always has been, profit.

This is at the expense of human life, and even the life of the planet, because, as Thomas Jefferson noted over 200 years ago, “A merchant has no country.” Thus, if you don’t have to live along the Gulf, smell the dead and dying creatures, and see the despoilment of an entire ecosystem, you really don’t give a shite what happens to it, do you?

Article by Jeanne Roberts appearing courtesy Celsias.

photo: nasa1fan/MSFC

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2 comments on “Who is to Blame for BP Gulf Oil Wellhead Blowout?

Whoever it was, it is well known that the oil people are trying to cut the costs (to bag more money off their oily business). Any cuts are more or less a compromise on safety. What we need is a global strict standard that would say what they can do and what they cannot do. It just makes me mad to see that we’re currently just trying to place the blame. That won’t stop the spill. The Russians had this idea to blow the whole thing up. Seems like a good idea. What do you think?


Explosives to seal the leak seems risky. If the explosion fails to seal the leak, then there may not be a way left to correct the problem.

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