Report lays blame largely on BP for gulf oil spill

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 | 12:37 p.m. CDT; updated 3:39 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 24, 2011

A key federal report laid much of the blame on BP for the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history and the deaths of 11 rig workers, particularly with regard to the cement seal that was put in place the day before the explosion that triggered the spill.

The report, released Wednesday, said in the days leading up to the disaster, BP made a series of decisions that complicated cementing operations, added risk, and may have contributed to the ultimate failure of the cement job.

The details were contained in the final report from an investigation team of the U.S. Coast Guard and the agency that regulates offshore drilling. The panel held hearings in the year following the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon tragedy. The Coast Guard-Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement investigation was among the most exhaustive.

Other investigations spread around the blame rather evenly, faulting misreadings of key data, the failure of the blowout preventer to stop the flow of oil to the sea and other shortcomings by executives, engineers and rig crew members. The joint investigation team, though, laid considerable blame on BP's shoulders.

The report said the decisions included using only one cement barrier and BP's choice to set the production casing in a location in the Macondo well that created additional risk of influx of oil or gas. The casing is a steel pipe placed in a well to maintain its integrity.

The panel said BP failed to communicate these decisions and the increasing operational risks to rig owner Transocean.

"BP, as the designated operator under (the bureau's) regulations, was ultimately responsible for conducting operations at Macondo in a way that ensured the safety and protection of personnel, equipment, natural resources, and the environment," the panel concluded.

In addition to the rig worker deaths, the resulting oil spill off Louisiana spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude oil from an undersea well owned by BP. The disaster caused billions of dollars in damages to hundreds of miles of coastline and wreaked havoc on the Gulf economy.

The report pins the causes for the disaster on many of the same faulty decisions as previous probes, including investigations by the president's independent oil spill commission, Congressional committees and the companies themselves. But it is likely to carry more weight in Congress, where Republican lawmakers in particular have said they are unwilling to adopt reforms until the federal investigation was complete.

Since the disaster, the Obama administration has reorganized the offshore drilling agency and boosted safety regulations. But Congress has yet to pass a single piece of legislation to address safety gaps highlighted by the disaster.

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Derrick Fogle September 14, 2011 | 1:44 p.m.

When I flew down to Florida on a business trip a month or so ago, it was mid-morning when I flew over the Gulf, and I could clearly see the sheen of oil patches on the surface where the sun reflected off the water. There were days worth of boat tracks criss-crossing the patches.

Just in case anyone wants to claim all the oil is gone, it's not. I saw it with my own eyes, just a few weeks ago.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz September 14, 2011 | 2:46 p.m.

How do you know it was from the BP spill and not from another source?

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle September 14, 2011 | 5:47 p.m.

@John: I could see patches of the sheen all the way between the coast near Panama City, and Tampa (~400km over the Gulf). It was most prevalent in the Gulf eddy current areas south of Tallahassee.

Flight Paths:

If you can come up with another source that would have created that wide an area of sheen patches, let me know. What I saw roughly correlates with known ocean currents and expected contaminant migration during and since the spill.

Ocean currents:

There's no doubt some of it was just "normal" pollution: any one of the nearly 30,000 other abandoned wells in the gulf, some of which are known to leak, but are not regularly monitored. Or, perhaps, discharge from one or more of the nearly 4,000 currently active wells in the gulf (but nobody is drilling there because of regulations, huh).

However, that just means there's more than one problem with oil extraction in the Gulf, not that the Macondo well discharge doesn't also linger.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking September 14, 2011 | 7:29 p.m.

Derrick, there are many mechanisms of dispersal of surface oil in the ocean, so it's unlikely any of the oil you saw was from the Macondo spill. Sheens, unfortunately, are pretty common in the Gulf, and they have many sources, both natural and man-made.

Here's a reference I've read about the fate of spilled oil at sea, if you want more information on it:


(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle September 14, 2011 | 9:59 p.m.

@DK: Thanks for the reference. I will concede that what I saw was not Macondo oil. But then... what was it?

Flight altitude was ~1,000 km. I could not see the sheen directly. I could only see the change in wave period and amplitude in reflected sunlight. I figured it was a fairly unusual visual phenomenon, only visible under certain conditions. Based on comparisons of known ground landmarks, I estimate I could detect ~1km width, for a distance of ~400km between land masses. The patches covered what I would estimate to be about 65% of my detectable surface.

It's ludicrous to think what I saw only existed for that 1km width. If the patches were spread out in an oval pattern with a maximum width of half it's length, surface coverage would have been ~50,000 sq. km. Using metrics on the thinnest detectable surface sheen (~.2 microns), that works out to about 1.8M liters of *something* on the surface. That's roughly 0.2% of the estimated release of Macondo, or about the capacity of a typical oil tanker.

At first I figured it was just windrows. But windrows don't hold days worth of boat tracks cutting through it. Yes, there were enough boat tracks, especially to and from Deadman's Bay, to determine it was several days worth of tracks. The newest ones were white and frothy; the oldest ones were creating the wider delineations between the patches.

There are lots of reports about an oil slick near the Macondo site dating Aug. 18th, but my observation was Aug. 5th and ~400km east of the Macondo site. Most reports about the sheen closer to Macondo echo BP's assessment of "Not ours," but at least one report of chemical analysis indicates the Aug 2011 sheen is a close match to the Macondo spill.

Again, I'll concede that what I saw wasn't Macondo oil, but I will reiterate that only means the Deepwater Horizon disaster isn't the only problem we've had, or have, with oil extraction in the gulf.

Sources (not complete, in no particular order):

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking September 15, 2011 | 9:56 a.m.


I get 10 million liters (about 62,000 barrels), and tried for a bit to nail down a good half life for spilled oil to estimate about what average oil input could maintain that (steady state). There's no one number (it depends on all sorts of factors and can vary by factors of hundreds), but it will be 62,000/(2 * half-life in days)in barrels/day.

Say very roughly that it takes a week for half of the oil spilled to evaporate/sediment/degrade. That's about 4400 bbls/day.

The Gulf produces about 1.5 million bbl/day, and about that much more comes through the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port every day on the average. So out of maybe 3 million bbls/day, spilling 0.15% of it really isn't out of the realm of possibility. Also, natural seeps account for at least some of it.

Just for perspective, there are about 2 quadrillion gallons of water in a cube 50,000 sq km by 500 feet deep. 62,000 barrels is about 2.6 million gallons, so that amount of oil, dispersed in that volume of water (which isn't necessarily a good assumption, but still), is a bit more than one part per billion. 62,000 barrels sounds like a lot of oil, but once the ocean gets through with it, it's pretty inconsequential. The problems are mostly when it doesn't disperse.

I agree with you that Macondo wasn't, and isn't the only problem we have with keeping oil out of the water. The fundamental problem is that we use so much oil, so inefficiently, and can't seem to stop.


(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire September 15, 2011 | 10:08 a.m.

One of these days this won't be a problem anymore. At that time it will be so expensive that nobody will spill it. And at some point, there will be virtually none left to spill.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle September 15, 2011 | 11:45 a.m.

@DK: No argument with your figures. I think I made a conversion mistake to wind up with 1.8M liters somehow. The rest of your numbers match what I was working with.

On the upside, since the Gulf is naturally a very "leaky" place, the ecology is geared to deal with a certain amount of oil. Most reports indicate bacteria was the primary force for digesting Macondo oil. Bacteria populations can swell very quickly to take advantage of more oil, then die back off when it's gone.

After re-reading all the reports about the investigated oil closer to Macondo, I would suspect that what I saw was actually part of the same thing, and that it covered a much, much larger area overall than I was estimating based on my own observations.

Still, even if that's true, it amounts to maybe 1% of the oil that comes from, or through, the Gulf every day. Not out-of-line with reality, at all. The bacteria and other natural forces probably took care of most of it in 2-3 weeks.

The oil-eating bacteria brings up an important point though. Bacteria colonies will expand as fast as they can based on ability to feed on the oil. When the oil goes away, the colony quickly collapses and returns to it's normal, more natural size.

Humans are exhibiting the exact same behavior, on our own scale, with access to oil. One would hope that humans turn out to be smarter than bacteria, but so far, it doesn't look like it.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire September 15, 2011 | 12:04 p.m.

Good one, Derrick.

(Report Comment)

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