December 15, 2011 12:13:00 PM
By SETH BORENSTEIN
AP Science Writer
WASHINGTON -- BP and the oil industry drilling in the Gulf of Mexico lacked the proper safety attitude to handle the large risks of deep-water drilling, leading to the many bad decisions behind the nation's worst offshore spill, a panel of expert engineers said Wednesday.
Despite better safety practices, the experts worried that the improvements could fade without new steps. They pointed to NASA and how lessons the agency learned after the 1986 Challenger disaster eventually dimmed, leading to the 2003 Columbia disaster.
The report's release coincided with the government's announcement of the results of the first auction of offshore oil leases off the Gulf of Mexico since the April 2010 spill. They drew $337.7 million in winning bids for 191 tracts in the western Gulf off the coast of Texas. BP had the fourth most successful bids, 11 totaling $27.5 million, far behind ConocoPhillips' 75 winning bids.
The National Academy of Engineering, which advises the federal government, cited errors that combined to make the well platform explode and oil spill, but noted a problem with the safety culture underlying last year's 172 million gallon spill at BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The industrial management involved with drilling the Macondo well had not adequately understood and coped with the system safety challenges presented by offshore drilling operations," the 136-page report said. "This raises questions about the industry's overall safety preparedness, the ability to handle the complexities of the deep-water operations, and industry oversight to approve and monitor well plans and operational practices and personnel competency and training."
That's a problem because the report called drilling in the Gulf's deep waters "some of the most complex and most risky ventures conducted by commercial enterprises."
Experts said a deficient safety culture led BP to rely on blowout preventers -- a 57-foot-tall, 400-ton system of well control devices -- as equipment that just couldn't fail.
The trouble is that even before the well blowout, "there were numerous warnings to both industry and regulators about potential failures of existing" blowout preventers, the report said. The report pointed to studies in 2001, 2002, 2004, and a 1999 well blowout and fire off the Louisiana coast.
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