Ask a Stupid Question

The presidential commission on the BP oil spill seems to be fulfilling the task of all such blue-ribbon commissions: ask the wrong questions, draw the wrong conclusions.

The commission’s general counsel, Fred Bartlit, burst across the media Monday with his claim that he could find no cost cutting leading to the April 20 blowout and the subsequent weeks of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from a mile beneath the ocean’s surface.

“I’ve been on a lot of rigs,” the Washington Post quoted Mr. Bartlit as saying “and I don’t believe people sit there and say, ‘This is really dangerous, but the guys in London will make more money.’ We don’t see a concrete situation where people made a trade-off of safety for dollars.”

He’s right, no one says, “The guys in London will make more money.” If they’re working on the rig floor, they say, “I’d better get this done cheap. If I don’t the boss will fire me and find someone who will.” If they’re a bit higher up the chain of command, they say, “My bonus and promotion depend on my bringing this project in under budget.”

No one wants to die on a rig or cause the death of others, but many of the automatic alarms and shut-off devices on Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon were shut down. If they had not been, 11 men who are dead might be alive today and the gulf might have been spared a supreme injury.

If cement contractor Halliburton had not been trying to cut corners, why did it authorize the use of cement known to be faulty to (unsuccessfully) seal the well?

If BP was not trying to drill on the cheap, then why – as marine conservationist Rick Steiner points out – did BP use a long string casing in the lower 1,200 feet instead of a casing liner? BP emails obtained by Congress say the decision was made to save time – three days time. Everyone – even Fred Bartlit – agrees, time is money and saving three days with a less substantial long string casing meant saving four and half million dollars.

For goodness sake, if cutting corners in a reckless attempt to send more money to the bottom line – if the managers and engineers on the Deepwater Horizon were doing their level best, to hell with what it costs – if that was NOT the reason for the blowout, then the alternative explanation is even more ominous.

If everyone is doing the very best they can do and no expense is spared and we still have a blowout and oil spill of this magnitude, then the only answer is: shut down offshore drilling, deepwater and shallow. Shut down onshore drilling, too because we are clearly operating beyond our capacity to control our technology.

There are a number of reasons why a guy who sits where I do might want to shut down drilling. (Global warming comes immediately to mind.) But it is precisely BP’s corporate policy of rewarding managers for keeping the costs down that killed 11 men in April and killed 15 men at BP’s Texas City refinery in 2005.

Unless and until that mentality changes, there will be more blasts, more spills and more deaths.

© Mark Floegel, 2010

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