Gerald Herber/Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Over six days in May, far from the familiar choreography of Washington hearings, federal investigators grilled workers involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in a chilly, sterile conference room at a hotel near the airport here.
The six-member panel of Coast Guard and Minerals Management Serviceofficials pressed for answers about what occurred on the rig on April 20 before it exploded. They wanted to know who was in charge, and heard conflicting answers.
They pushed for more insight into an argument on the rig that day between a manager for BP, the well’s owner, and one for Transocean, the rig’s owner, and asked Curt R. Kuchta, the rig’s captain, how the crew knew who was in charge.
“It’s pretty well understood amongst the crew who’s in charge,” he said.
“How do they know that?” a Coast Guard investigator asked.
“I guess, I don’t know,” Captain Kuchta said. “But it’s pretty well — everyone knows.”
Looking annoyed, Capt. Hung Nguyen of the Coast Guard, one of the chief federal investigators, shook his head. The exchange confirmed an observation he had made earlier in the day at the hearing.
“A lot of activities seem not very tightly coordinated in the way that would make me comfortable,” he said. “Maybe that’s just the way of business out there.”
Investigators have focused on the minute-to-minute decisions and breakdowns to understand what led to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 people and setting off the largest oil spill in United States history and an environmental disaster. But the lack of coordination was not limited to the day of the explosion.
New government and BP documents, interviews with experts and testimony by witnesses provide the clearest indication to date that a hodgepodge of oversight agencies granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely on the rig, particularly with a mix of different companies operating on the Deepwater whose interests were not always in sync.
And in the aftermath, arguments about who is in charge of the cleanup — often a signal that no one is in charge — have led to delays, distractions and disagreements over how to cap the well and defend the coastline. As a result, with oil continuing to gush a mile below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, the laws of physics are largely in control, creating the daunting challenge of trying to plug a hole at depths where equipment is straining under more than a ton of pressure per square inch.
Tad W. Patzek, chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas, Austin, has analyzed reports of what led to the explosion. “It’s a very complex operation in which the human element has not been aligned with the complexity of the system,” he said in an interview last week.
His conclusion could also apply to what occurred long before the disaster.
Exceptions Are the Rule
Deepwater oil production in the gulf, which started in 1979 but expanded much faster in the mid-1990s with new technology and federal incentives, is governed as much by exceptions to rules as by the rules themselves.
Under a process called “alternative compliance,” much of the technology used on deepwater rigs has been approved piecemeal, with regulators cooperating with industry groups to make small adjustments to guidelines that were drawn up decades ago for shallow-water drilling.
Of roughly 3,500 drilling rigs and production platforms in the gulf, fewer than 50 are in waters deeper than 1,000 feet. But the risks and challenges associated with this deeper water are much greater.
“The pace of technology has definitely outrun the regulations,” Lt. Cmdr. Michael Odom of the Coast Guard, who inspects the rigs, said last month at a hearing.
As a result, deepwater rigs operate under an ad hoc system of exceptions. The deeper the water, the further the exceptions stretch, not just from federal guidelines but also often from company policy.
So, for example, when BP officials first set their sights on extracting the oily riches under what is known as Mississippi Canyon Block 252 in the Gulf of Mexico, they asked for and received permission from federal regulators to exempt the drilling project from federal law that requires a rigorous type of environmental review, internal documents and federal records indicate.
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