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The decisions that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Sarah Gardner Apr 16, 2012

The decisions that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

Sarah Gardner Apr 16, 2012

Sarah Gardner: It’s been almost two years since the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest accidental oil spill in U.S. history. The explosion on the rig left 11 workers dead and sent millions of barrels of oil into Gulf waters. Scientists say it’ll take years to assess the environmental damage.

But meantime, deepwater drilling in the Gulf is back, which raises the question: Has anything really changed? Abrahm Lustgarten is a reporter for Pro Publica and the author of a new book about what led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Abrahm, thanks for joining us.

Abrahm Lustgarten: Thank you for having me.

Gardner: Listen, you’ve talked to a lot of people when you did this investigation of the BP disaster. Did BP talk to you?

Lustgarten: BP didn’t talk to me. In nearly a year of reporting, they repeatedly declined interviews. In the end, they requested that I send them questions by writing — I did, it was about 25 pages. They sent me back a one-paragraph response that essentially said that BP did not have an issue when it came to operational safety, which is a core issue I was reporting on.

Gardner: So who was talking to you, then? Whistleblowers? Former regulators?

Lustgarten: Yeah, both. I spent quite a bit of time with a former EPA attorney who had been charged with overseeing BP’s relationship to the federal government for about 15 years at that point. I also got to know a number of BP employees, workers, particularly on Alaska’s North Slope, but also former contractors who worked at the company’s facilities in Texas. Together, all these people, plus a few investigators who had worked inside the company, had painted a portrait of how the company works on a daily basis, and also shared a good number of documents with me along the way.

Gardner: So what in the end, after all this research and investigation — what in the end caused this environmental disaster?

Lustgarten: Well, there’s the immediate causes, and that’s well-tread territory at this point. But my findings is that the engineers who were drilling this well should have known better at many of the steps along the way, and they made a series of decisions that were against their better judgment. And really I sought to understand why, and so I looked less at the disaster in the Gulf itself but more at the 20 years that preceded it, trying to understand how the company operates, how its management made decisions. What I found is a very clear pattern of emphasizing profits and speed and cost-cuts ahead of safety and environmental prudence.

Gardner: Can we point to anything concrete that has changed — not in BP culture, but on the regulation side or anything else that can give us hope that this won’t happen again?

Lustgarten: Well there’s some small changes that the government has made, which are improvements. There are a number of technical changes in the regulations that address some of the technical things that went wrong in the Macondo well. You also saw the division and reorganization of what was in 2010 the Minerals and Management Agency, largely to address a conflict of interest between regulating drillers in the Gulf of Mexico and collecting royalty payments. But what we haven’t seen is also notable: There has been no legislative addressing of what went wrong in the Gulf of Mexico, and there’s yet to be any criminal charges filed.

Gardner: Bottom line: Could this happen again, do you think?

Lustgarten: There’s two ways to consider that question: One is that this is a risky and dangerous business, drilling for oil, and no matter how much care is taken, that risk means that there’s a fairly good chance that there will be environmental consequences, a spill like this, in the future. The second is to look at BP in particular. If the company precedes the way that it has for the last 15 years, I think it’s likely that the chain of accidents that we’ve seen from that company will continue. I would not be surprised to see history repeat itself again.

Gardner: Abrahm Lustgarten is author of the new book “Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster.” Abrahm, thanks a lot.

Lustgarten: Thank you so much for having me.

Gardner: Tune in Thursday — host Alex Chadwick of the radio program BURN investigates where all that oil from the BP spill went.

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