Workers Say BP Took Shortcuts before Rig Explosion: A Look at Corporate Character

BlogHer Original Post

If you watched CNN last night and the night before, you may have seen Anderson Cooper's interviews with some of the workers who survived the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that BP leased from Transocean in the Gulf of Mexico. You may have been shocked to learn that BP appears to have put saving time and money ahead of saving human lives. I wasn't.

According to the CNN story, one of the men interviewed overheard an argument between a BP official and Transocean official:

The BP official wanted workers to replace heavy mud, used to keep the well's pressure down, with lighter seawater to help speed a process that was costing an estimated $750,000 a day and was already running five weeks late, rig survivors told CNN.

Time is money, the business world tells us, and so, despite knowing the substitution of seawater compromised safety, the Transocean official caved to BP's demand. Later, chief driller Dewey Revette voiced concern, survivors said, but what BP wanted ruled. Revette was one of the 11 men who died in the explosion.

As you'll see in the video, the companies preached safety endlessly, and documents show the Deepwater Horizon had a long record of no serious accidents. However, BP operations in the gulf from 2001 through 2007 did experience enough incidents to be fined by the Minerals Management Service. On the Deep Horizon that night, according to the workers, dedication to safety went out the window.

The workers' lawyer, Steve Gordon, calls BP's conduct criminal. He tells Cooper in the interview, "There's a crime scene sitting 5,000 feet below the water."

This is not the first time I've heard that BP's culture allegedly encouraged recklessness the night of the explosion. The more I read, the more it strikes me that BP may have been hampered by a confusing chain of command and a mindset that celebrated safety and yet seemed to put money, image, and protocol above all else. A May 27 story in the Wall Street Journal painted the same chaotic scene the rig workers did on CNN but from the perspective of a female worker who helped navigate the rig. The headline reads, "Nobody was in charge," and the article reveals what happened, according to 23-year-old Andrea Fleytas, when she tried to radio for help:

"Mayday, Mayday. This is Deepwater Horizon. We have an uncontrollable fire."

When Capt. Kuchta realized what she had done, he reprimanded her, she says.

"I didn't give you authority to do that," he said, according to Ms. Fleytas, who says she responded: "I'm sorry."

The running theme is that BP was "unprepared."

A ribbon in memory of the 11 men who died in the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster is seen on the lapel of Keith Jones during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the effects of recent court decisions and liability caps on corporate responsibility on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8, 2010. Gordon Jones, Keith's sonr, was killed in the April 20 explosion on the rig.  UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg. Photo via Newscom

The uglier theme arising is that the company seems far more concerned with liability issues than people. If you've watched the congressional hearings on the disaster, you may have seen BP, Transocean, and Halliburton, the company that poured the cement for the rig, each pointing fingers at the other. In addition, there's Cameron, the company that produced the malfunctioning blowout preventer blamed for the explosion, defending its products on the sideline.

And then there's that BP official who took the fifth on grounds that he may incriminate himself. Things don't look good in terms of BP's absolution. I'm sure its board rejoices that some of our politicians are working to block attempts to remove the liability cap on damages.

With all this finger-pointing, when President Barack Obama appeared on the Today Show recently, he said he needs to listen to experts so he'll know "whose ass to kick." America's version of the Greek chorus in this drama, which is the public plus media, groans and points to BP.

Sleepless in Louisiana

Two nights ago, after another nearly sleepless night, I lay on the couch and felt myself drift. My mind's screen filled with an animated image of Deepwater Horizon machinery a mile deep in the Gulf. My brain had absorbed the oil spill to the point of spending time trying to solve the puzzle of data I've been reading--how the rig worked; how the men died; how many brown pelicans and marshes dead. My soul longs to understand what the hell I've been seeing for the last seven weeks. If my mind is this tortured, imagine the minds of the families who lost husbands and sons that night.

Everything goes back to that drilling and our need for oil that pushes some of us, our companies, and government agencies to ignore the risks. For instance, in 2005, when my governor Bobby Jindal was a lowly congressman, he applauded the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that expanded offshore oil drilling on the outer continental shelf, and we've learned also of MMS dysfunction awarding leases too easily, accommodating corporate greed and negligence. Robert J. Samuel in an op-ed at the Washington Post posits relaxing in success may lead to failure.

As I've said at BlogHer.com before, when this crisis began with a tragic bang in the sea, I didn't want to write about it. I live in southeastern Louisiana near Lake Pontchartrain, and unlike many other Americans who would only hear about the oil rig explosion via national news and learn that 11 men died in that disaster, I knew I would be hearing about that explosion and the heartbreak of the families for weeks anytime I turned on the local news. Furthermore, Louisiana is an oil state. Down here, so many fingers dig into oil pie, I wondered if we'd ever know what really happened on that oil rig.

A frame grab of a live video stream of operations to stop the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen on June 8, 2010. Today marks the 50th day since an oil rig explosion caused a massive oil spill that killed 11 workers on board the rig and devastated the Gulf Coast environment. UPI/BP Photo via Newscom

However, with the Gulf of Mexico being polluted by BP oil, workers becoming ill due to use of the Corexit dispersant, and the oil slick spreading to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, how the rig exploded fell under a much bigger microscope. And the story's become more nightmarish each day, and I have become obsessed with its twist and turns. That's what happens sometimes to bloggers when disaster strikes their homeland; they are consumed.

Lately, I've been writing litanies of BP's failures like the following, which is shorter than some others that have ended up in my posts at WSATA.

As I've watched the story unfold, the rig exploding on April 20 and BP's callousness toward the families of the 11 men who died in that explosion and its questionable management of the rig as it was about to explode; from its attempts to block press access to its CEO Tony Hayward saying "I'd like my life back" followed by a denial of oil plumes that now have been confirmed, I've again thought about this documentary (The Corporation).

That post was about a friend, Mary Lynn Plaisance, a book author who lives in Cajun country 60 miles from Grand Isle, La., ranting on Facebook. She's recently discovered that corporations may be considered "persons" for legal reasons and BP's existence as an "artificial being" may protect it from the fullness of our growing wrath. The documentary The Corporation, produced before the BP Gulf disaster, looks at other corporations in the context of personhood and ask, "If a corporation's a person, then what kind of person is it?"

I'm not alone in writing litanies of BP's flaws. Google the company and you'll find thousands of posts ranting about that British oil giant. You'll also find rage on Twitter. There's even a fake BP public relations account from which a Twitter member unrelated to the company mirrors the perception that BP doesn't care about people or the environment.

Furthermore, protests have emerged in the brick and mortar world with images like the "Bitch, Please!" poster suggesting the company holds us hostage with our need for fuel. One group calls for the government to "Seize BP."

However, we also have pundits reminding us to exercise caution in our outrage. Jim Brown, a former insurance commissioner in Louisiana who's known his share of legal troubles, asks, "If you destroy BP, then who's the real loser?" He questions the decision to pursue criminal investigation at this time.

The criminal investigation will cause BP executives to scurry and find lawyers, who will strongly advise all those being investigated to say nothing. This is a critical time when company officials should be solely focused on shutting down the spill and cleaning up their mess. Is it wise to put a chill on their efforts by waiving possible criminal charges over their heads?

American anger's swelled so much against the company that it finally had the good sense to yank proverbial-foot-in-the-mouth CEO Hayward from the public's eye. I think they'd had enough when he admitted BP had no plan to address a potential oil leak in deep water, or maybe it was a combination of his denying the existence of plumes with wanting his life back, admitting to no plan, and also spending money that could have gone to help people whose lives have been ruined by this tragedy on a PR ad campaign to save BP's image.

Hayward's been replaced as the face of BP in the U.S. by its clean-up point man, Bob Dudley. The CEO says he'll focus on the company's day-to-day operations and protecting BP's financial assets, per The Guardian.

When some people blast BP, they're mad about how long it's taking the company to clean up the Gulf and stop the leak completely. That's not the trigger for me. Having worked with engineers trying to solve man-made environmental crises before, I know there's no such thing as a quick fix, which is why humans should be more careful from the start. Furthermore, watching from the beginning, I remember hearing scientists say we had a long road ahead, that even the relief oil wells that should be finished in August, proposed as the final leak solution, may not work.

So, when I speak of BP's failures, I'm not talking about the many obstacles the company's hit attempting to seal the leak. I'm talking about its character issues. Similar to that question in that documentary, I ask, "If BP were a person, what kind of person would it be?"

This is why I kept an eye on Hayward. In my first public relations course many years ago in college, my professor said that CEOs determine corporate culture. If a CEO tends to obfuscate and seems callous, that attitude will trickle down to other parts of the corporation. So, after watching Hayward's performance as he tried to relate to people affected by this ecological catastrophe, I'm not surprised to hear that BP put money before human lives, not surprised at all.

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Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE & you can find her other stuff through Her 411.

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