- Associated Press - Monday, November 8, 2010

The presidential commission investigating the BP Gulf oil spill, siding with the international energy giant, challenged claims made by lawmakers in Congress that the oil company and others sacrificed safety to cut costs and were largely to blame for the record oil spill.

In preliminary findings issued Monday, the panel’s 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 prior investigations of the blowout, including BP’s. Mr. Bartlit said he agreed with “about 90 percent” of the company’s own conclusions.

One finding 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 into the Gulf of Mexico: 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,” Mr. 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.”

The investigator 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.

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

“They are pasting over because they know the government is going to be a defendant sooner or later in this litigation,” Mr. 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 the company put the drive for revenues ahead of safety.

BP PLC’s internal investigation found flaws with cement work done by contractor Halliburton 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 Chief Executive Tony Hayward, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, and Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, who chairs a key subcommittee on the panel, questioned at least five decisions BP made in the days leading up to the explosion.

Democrats also hammered comments from Texas Rep. Joe Barton, the ranking Republican on the panel, for saying BP was facing a “shakedown” from the federal government to pay for the spill.

In the Republican midterm victories, Mr. Waxman lost his chairmanship and Mr. Stupak did not run for re-election. Mr. Barton was re-elected easily.

“Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense,” Mr. Waxman and Mr. Stupak charged at the time.

In a statement Monday, Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and a member of House energy panel, stood by those claims.

“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,” Mr. Markey said.

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. Panel members 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 some procedures BP decided to use in that process, in which 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. Mr. 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.