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Macondo blowout: Where was the government?

Just a quick bulletin from New Orleans. Been in hearings all week. Rumor has it the weather has been nice; I'm going to check that out before I fly home. But in the meantime, I'm rummaging through a 10-page internal BP document in which BP investigators questioned Gregory Walz, the engineering team leader for the Macondo well, on the decisions made in the days leading up to the blowout. I'm posting a story soon that touches on this document.

Walz was a key player, the guy who, though new to the job, had to make a lot of crucial decisions or participate in conference calls regarding the casing, centralizers, cement slurry, etc. The BP investigators asked him to walk them through every decision, each day, why they did this, why they did that. The gist is that they thought they could get by with only six centralizers and that if there was any sign that the cement job didn't work they could run a test called a cement bond log that would show where there were gaps or channels in the cement and they could do a remedial cement job. No one is thinking blowout. No one is thinking oil spill, calamity, disaster, anguish, hysteria. It's all very technical. In the end, the BP folks thought the cement job looked good, no lost fluids, nothing weird about the well, and they skipped the cement bond log and then the next day the well blew out.

One subtle fact lurks in this document: The government is a non-factor. There's only a briefing, passing mention of government regulation:

"...the indications were that they had met the plan and MMS regs, and that the CBL was only a contingency if they had failed to meet their plan..."

In fact, in all these hearings, I can't think of any instance in which someone from the government was part of the narrative. Sure, the MMS (Minerals Management Service) gets mentioned occasionally, but it is so low-key as to be shadowy, almost hypothetical. The absence of MMS people in the story line could conceivably be related to the fact that the MMS itself is conducting the inquiry -- or at least, the MMS's successor agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

It's clear: This was a largely self-regulated industry. At the key moments, when the crucial decisions were made, the government simply wasn't at the table, or on the conference call, or in any way a factor.

By Joel Achenbach  | October 8, 2010; 11:59 AM ET
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Terribly odd that this is datestamped on the 8th but only appears on the 11th. Hope the servers are serving properly...

Posted by: Scottynuke | October 11, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

You raise a question: should someone from the government be involved in and approve key industrial decisions, such as when specific tasks are performed on an oil drilling platform or in a steel factory or a coal mine or wherever? How and where does one draw the line between decisions that company executives should have the smarts to make themselves, and decisions that only a government regulator should be allowed to make for them? I would imagine that no one wanted the Macondo job to work more than the BP executives on site wanted it to work, just as no airplane passenger ever wants to plane to land safely more than the pilot wants a safe landing. It seems to me that this whole investigation is making too much of the government's regulatory role in the old drilling business, as if by simply having more/better regulation, all future crises can be avoided.

Posted by: patboyle | October 11, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Once the well was approved, it was a fait accompli for the government.

Posted by: Jumper1 | October 11, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

patboyle - You've definitely identified a question, and answered it correctly.

Posted by: Bob-S | October 13, 2010 4:02 AM | Report abuse

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