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New report criticizes industry, regulators in Gulf oil spill

December 14, 2011
  • An endangered Kemps Ridley turtle swims out from under an oil patch as rescue workers attempt to capture the oiled animal for rehabilitation during the Gulf oil spill. It was one of the unlucky turtles that got away.
An endangered Kemps Ridley turtle swims out from under an oil patch as rescue… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

The oil and gas industry and federal regulators focused more on exploration and production than safety in the years leading up to the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 workers and touched off the worst offshore spill in American history, according to a new independent report by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council.

The report, conducted at the behest of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, echoed findings from previous investigations issued over the last year about the mishaps and chain of poor decisions that led to the blowout of the Macondo well. In particular, the report "Macondo Well -- Deepwater Horizon Blowout, Lessons for Improving Offshore Drilling Safety," said the “multiple flawed decisions that led to blowout”  resulted from “a deficient overall systems approach to safety” among the corporations that led the drilling at the Macondo well, including BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

The report went further in some key areas, calling into doubt the ability of blowout preventers to serve as the ultimate fail-safe device, given that “there were numerous warnings to both industry and regulators about potential failures of existing BOP systems” over the previous decade, according to the report. The report also said that the fragmented nature of offshore oil drilling, with different companies responsible for highly specialized tasks, means that few people on a rig may have a complete sense of the risks involved in the drilling operation.

New oil and gas leases went on sale today, the first time since the BP spill.

The report committee’s chairman, former secretary of the Navy, Donald C. Winter, said improvements in regulatory oversights and industry response to offshore disasters gave him confidence that offshore drilling should continue. But he stressed that more work needed to be done.  “Our concern is whether this is a good first step in the right direction,” Winter said in a conference call, “or whether these changes represent a transient response in aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon.”

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-- Neela Banerjee in Washington

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