WASHINGTON -- BP too often operated on the fly in the closing days of work on its doomed Gulf oil well, adding needless risk of a blowout, investigators, experts and panel members said at the presidential oil spill commission Tuesday.
They said the company was hurried and made confusing, last-minute changes to plans that were unusual in the complex environment of deep water. They said BP could have operated more safely if the company took the time to get the necessary equipment and materials.
"We are aware of what appeared to be a rush to completion," commission co-chairman William K. Reilly said. What is unclear, he said, is what drove people to determine they could not wait for equipment and materials to perform operations more safely.
Lawyers investigating the April 20 disaster have said they found no evidence that anyone aboard the rig or on shore made a conscious decision to sacrifice safety for money. But the panel's leaders made clear Tuesday that the findings in sum exposed a lack of safety culture on the rig, with Reilly blasting all three companies -- BP, Halliburton Co., and Transocean -- as "laggards" in the industry and in "need of top-to-bottom reform."
Much of the scrutiny focused on the company's plan to temporarily plug the well, which investigators with the presidential commission say added to the risk of a blowout. Plugging the well is a procedure used to seal it off until the company comes back to produce oil and gas.
Experts questioned BP's use of a single plug in the process. Charlie Williams, a chief scientist with Shell Energy Resources Inc., said the company used a minimum of three plugs in its deepwater wells.
BP also chose to fill the well with seawater, rather than heavy drilling mud, leaving it vulnerable to an upsurge of oil and gas -- a condition that is not allowed for exploratory wells drilled in other places, experts said. The company also chose not to use mechanical plugs, devices put inside the pipe that also can block oil and gas.
Many of the decisions would have required additional time and materials, said Steve Lewis, an advanced drilling technology engineer with Seldovia Marine Services who reviewed BP's drilling plans, federal permits and communications on behalf of the commission.
"I know there was pressure on these people to get done and move on," Lewis said. "The apparent shuffling and scrambling was not really necessary."
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, a federal judge on Tuesday barred news organizations from a conference over a company's claim that the government is moving too slowly to resume offshore drilling. It said the government has not yet issued a single permit to allow offshore drilling even though a moratorium was lifted in October.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman said the hearing would be held in his chambers. He said news organizations had no right to attend.
The government is defending the time it is taking to approve deepwater offshore drilling permits that would have been suspended under the moratorium that was lifted nearly a month ago.
Ensco Offshore claims that since the ban was lifted Oct. 12, the government has not issued a single permit that would allow the resumption of any previously suspended drilling activities.
The government doesn't seem to dispute that allegation, saying in a late Monday filing that it must ensure applications meet regulations toughened after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The moratorium was ordered in the wake of the April 20 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig.