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Panel: BP did not put cost over safety

WASHINGTON — The presidential commission investigating the BP Gulf oil spill challenged claims in Congress that the oil company and others sacrificed safety to cut costs. In preliminary findings issued Monday, the first from an independent panel, investigators supported many of BP’s own conclusions about what led to the disaster.

The panel’s chief investigator, Fred H. Bartlit Jr., announced 13 principal findings, many of which seemed to track with other investigations of the blowout, including BP’s. Bartlit said he agreed with “about 90 percent” of the company’s own conclusions.

Under commission procedures, Bartlit presented the findings to the seven-member panel. A report is due with Obama in mid-January.

One determination in particular challenges the narrative that has dominated the headlines and Democratic probes in Congress since the April 20 incident killed 11 and unleashed more than 200 million gallons of crude oil from the blown-out well: that BP made perilous choices to save money.

“We see no instance where a decision-making person or group of people sat there aware of safety risks, aware of costs and opted to give up safety for costs,” Bartlit said. “We do not say everything done was perfectly safe. We’re saying that people have said people traded safety for dollars. We studied the hell out of this. We welcome anybody who gives us something we missed.”

Bartlit said that despite the pressure of operating a $1.5-million-a-day rig, workers ultimately don’t want to risk their lives or the lives of others.

“Anytime you are talking about a million-and-a-half dollars a day money enters in,” he said. “All I am saying is human beings did not sit there and sell safety down the river for dollars on the rig that night.”

Representatives from the three main companies working on the rig — Transocean, BP and Halliburton — agreed.

Critics immediately complained. Daniel Becnel, a Louisiana lawyer suing BP and others, called the commission’s finding “absolutely absurd.” He also took issue with Bartlit’s endorsement of BPs view of events.

“They are pasting over because they know the government is going to be a defendant sooner or later in this litigation,” Becnel said.

According to testimony before the government’s joint investigative panel, the Macondo well project was nearly $60 million over budget days before the explosion. That panel has been paying particular attention to the issue of whether money was put ahead of safety.

BP PLC’s internal investigation found flaws with contractor Halliburton’s cement job and the maintenance performed by rig owner Transocean Ltd. on critical pieces of equipment. The company also questioned how its own employees misread a critical pressure test before the blowout.

Democrats in Congress have focused on BP’s well design, saying the company made decisions that sacrificed safety to save millions of dollars. Those choices included running a single piece of pipe from the seafloor to the bottom of the well, something called a “long string.” BP also chose to use fewer centralizers, devices that hold the pipe down the center of the well for cementing.

In a June letter to then-BP CEO Tony Hayward, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., questioned at least five decisions BP made in the days leading up to the explosion. In the Republican takeover on election night, Waxman lost his position as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Stupak did not run for re-election in the House.

“The common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety,” said Waxman and Stupak. “Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense.”

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., a member of Waxman’s energy panel that is investigating the spill, stood by those claims in a statement issued Monday.

“When the culture of a company favors risk-taking and cutting corners above other concerns, systemic failures like this oil spill disaster result without direct decisions being made or tradeoffs being considered,” Markey said. “What is fully evident, from BP’s pipeline spill in Alaska and the Texas City refinery disaster, to the Deepwater Horizon well failure, is that BP has a long and sordid history of cutting costs and pushing the limits in search of higher profits.”

After months of hearings, investigations and finger-pointing, there is still disagreement over what and whose mistakes triggered the deadly and polluting explosion.

The president’s commission is the first independent body to weigh in. Like BP, it found that the oil and gas traveled up the center of the pipe in the well, rather than up the sides — a finding that was disputed Monday by Halliburton Co. The company has been criticized by the panel’s investigators for pumping faulty cement and having tests in hand that showed it would fail. If the blowout had started in the space between the pipe and the underground rock, Halliburton’s cement would have been less of a factor.

The panel also questioned, like BP, the interpretation of a critical test used to determine if the well was stable before the company abandoned it. The investigators said that some procedures BP decided to use in that process, where a well is plugged until a company is ready to harvest oil and gas, introduced additional risk.

But its probe also left out critical elements, including why the blowout preventer — the last defense against a runaway well — failed to block the flow of oil and gas. Bartlit said the team would await a forensic analysis before drawing conclusions. The blowout preventer is now protected evidence in a federal court case into the disaster.

Bartlit said his job was not to assign blame, but to deliver a report about what happened aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig.

He started his presentation with a moment of silence for the blowout’s victims.

“We will honor them if we can get to a root cause without a lot of bickering and self-serving statements,” Bartlit said.