The three causes of BP’s Titanic oil disaster: Recklessness, Arrogance, and Hubris

Salazar says drilling companies made “some very major mistakes”; Expert reviewer finds well’s cement seal “was probably faulty” and inadequately tested (to save money); Explosion occured while BP executives were on board “celebrating the rig’s safety record”! now know with pretty high confidence the three main, interrelated, underlying causes of the BP’s oil disaster:  Hubris, recklessness, and arrogance.  So the metaphor is as much Goldman Sachs as that other great maritime disaster — the Titanic.

And if BP turns out to be guilty of malfeasance, too — violating its federal permit — as the NYT suggested — then you’d have the Four Horseman of Oilpocalypse.

Reporting over the weekend has also given us a pretty good idea of the proximate cause, which, as we’ll see, appears intimately tied to the underlying causes.

[NOTE:  If you think I’ve missed anything really important post a comment.]

First, the arrogance is the entire industry’s relentlessly successful effort to achieve voluntary, ‘trust us’, self-regulation.  That effort blocked mandates for better technology and better oversight that might well have prevented this disaster.  I discuss that here, Dr. Beamish elaborates on it here, and the St. Petersburg Times provides yet more detail here:  “It’s becoming increasingly evident that self-regulation has not worked.” Finally, on Friday, the WSJ, had a very good piece, “Oil Regulator Ceded Oversight to Drillers.”

That lack of oversight is a key reason, “the safety record of U.S. offshore drilling compares unfavorably, in terms of deaths and serious accidents, to other major oil-producing countries.  Over the past five years, an offshore oil worker in the U.S. was more than four times as likely to be killed than a worker in European waters.”  And blowouts are much more common in the Gulf than anywhere else.

Second, we have BP’s general recklessness.  I detailed its spotty safety record here.  What wasn’t clear until now, at least to me, was that BP was worse than the rest of Big Oil.  But the NYT has an excellent piece, “BP Has a History of Blasts and Oil Spills,” which notes “BP continues to lag other oil companies when it comes to safety, according to federal officials and industry analysts.”

Indeed, OSHA says BP has “systemic safety” problems.  BP tries to wave this off as all due to their previous CEO, but that is BS from BP:  The current CEO, Hayward, became “Chief Executive of exploration and production in January 2003.”  He created whatever safety culture the explorers and producers have today.

Third, we have BP’s hubris (see Goldman Sachs of Big Oil? CEO Hayward says to fellow executives: “What the hell did we do to deserve this?”).  It simply couldn’t imagine or envision this disaster (see “BP calls blowout disaster ‘inconceivable,’ ‘unprecedented,’ and unforeseeable“).  Of course hubris leads to recklessness and arrogance — and poor planning.  If BP or any other major had thought this type of disaster was conceivable, it would have pre-built and pre-positioned one of those 100-ton domes in the Gulf years ago, rather than waiting until after the disaster to build it.  And it would also have put far more into prevention technology.

Here’s the clearest evidence of BP’s hubris.  It has now come out that, when the rig blew, “BP executives were in the next room, celebrating the rig’s safety record.”

But if BP actually knew the first thing about rig accidents, then it never would have had this celebration right after the cementing!  A 2007 Minerals Management Service service report found “cementing problems were associated with 18 of 39 blowouts between 1992 and 2006” as the Houston Chronicle reported two weeks ago:

At the time of the accident, crews were “cementing” or installing casing to secure the walls of the well….

Nearly all the blowouts examined occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.

“During the current period (1992 to 2006), the percentage of blowouts associated with cementing operations increased significantly from the previous period,” said the study

So who in their right mind would have a safety party for a rig right when you’re finishing the cementing process?  This is Titanic-like hubris and recklessness combined.

The emerging details of the proximate cause underscore the importance of the underlying causes.  CNN offered this damning but cryptic report Thursday:

Companies involved in the sinking of the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon made “some very major mistakes,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday after meeting with executives from the oil company BP.

Salazar would not elaborate, telling reporters in Houston, Texas, that the cause remains under investigation. But he said the failure of the rig’s blowout preventer — a critical piece of equipment designed to shut off the flow of oil in an emergency — was “a huge malfunction” that has left oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

What were these “major mistakes”?  Since Salazar won’t say, the best we have to go on is two amazing stories over the weekend.  The first was a Saturday AP story, “Bubble of methane triggered rig blast“:

The deadly blowout of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico was triggered by a bubble of methane gas that escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before exploding, according to interviews with rig workers conducted during BP’s internal investigation….

Portions of the interviews, two written and one taped, were described in detail to an Associated Press reporter by Robert Bea, a University of California Berkeley engineering professor who serves on a National Academy of Engineering panel on oil pipeline safety and worked for BP PLC as a risk assessment consultant during the 1990s. He received them from industry friends seeking his expert opinion.

A group of BP executives were on board the Deepwater Horizon rig celebrating the project’s safety record, according to the transcripts. Meanwhile, far below, the rig was being converted from an exploration well to a production well.

Based on the interviews, Bea believes that the workers set and then tested a cement seal at the bottom of the well. Then they reduced the pressure in the drill column and attempted to set a second seal below the sea floor. A chemical reaction caused by the setting cement created heat and a gas bubble which destroyed the seal.

Prof. Bea went further in a Bloomberg Businessweek piece Saturday evening, “Methane Breached Faulty Seal, Caused Rig Blast, Professor Says.”  Bea essentially accuses the companies involved of outright recklessness and negligence, driven by greed:

Bubbles of methane gas burst through a cement seal that was probably faulty, leading to the fatal explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, said a California professor who reviewed transcripts of interviews with blast witnesses.

Workers, who did basic pressure testing on the seal, didn’t perform a second and more expensive test to ensure that BP Plc’s Macondo well was properly plugged, said Robert Bea, a University of California Berkeley engineering professor.

Bea, who held engineering jobs at Royal Dutch Shell Plc in the 1960s and 1970s and later consulted for BP, said the seal was one of several breakdowns that contributed to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The April 20 blast killed 11 workers and set off a leak that continues to spew an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf. The Deepwater Horizon, which London- based BP rented from Transocean Ltd., sank two days later.

The additional seal test would have taken more time, Bea said. He said Shell typically did that test during his years at The Hague-based company.

If this account is accurate, then it will be interesting to see which companies actually get blamed.  Halliburton was doing the cementing, after all.  But it would clearly be the overall hubris, recklessness, and arrogance of the industry that were the underlying reasons.

BP clearly had become a ruthless cost- and corner-cutter.  Indeed, the UK’s Times Online ran a November 2009 story, with this amazing headline:

Tony Hayward makes his mark on BP

Ruthless cuts by the new boss have produced results in higher than expected profits

… More than 6,500 jobs have been eliminated and overheads have fallen by a third….

Having already cut $3 billion from costs, he predicted that another $1 billion will be eliminated by the year end.

Yes, BP has apparently slashed $4 billion in costs, ruthlessly.  But that could never impact safety, could it?  The story ends with yet another uber-ironic quote from Hayward:

“My whole focus has been to recognise that at its heart we’re an operating enterprise. The question is how do we create a BP that 10 years from now doesn’t end up back in the ditch.”

My suggestion:  Fire Hayward.

Finally, we have one more strong allegation from a front-page NYT story last week that deserves mentioning again:

At least one worker who was on the oil rig at the time of the explosion on April 20, and who handled company records for BP, said the rig had been drilling deeper than 22,000 feet, even though the company’s federal permit allowed it to go only 18,000 to 20,000 feet deep, the lawyers said.

Truthout goes further in a piece last week that quoted “Louisiana lawyer Daniel Becnel Jr.” who “represents oil workers on those platforms”:

Becnel tells me that one of the platform workers has informed him that the BP well was apparently deeper than the 18,000 feet depth reported. BP failed to communicate that additional depth to Halliburton crews, who, therefore, poured in too small a cement cap for the additional pressure caused by the extra depth. So, it blew.Why didn’t Halliburton check? “Gross negligence on everyone’s part,” said Becnel. Negligence driven by penny-pinching, bottom-line squeezing. BP says its worker is lying. Someone’s lying here, man on the platform or the company that has practiced prevarication from Alaska to Louisiana.

I think the full truth of the proximate causes probably will come out in this case — especially if we get an independent commission to investigate the BP disaster.  But think we need an independent commission to tell us what the underlying causes are or who is to blame.

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21 Responses to The three causes of BP’s Titanic oil disaster: Recklessness, Arrogance, and Hubris

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    BP is guilty of incompetence bordering on criminal negligence, but maybe we should take a larger view. The Gulf blowout is a direct result of a fossil fuel culture guided by making money at all costs. Exxon, Conoco Phillips, and Chevron have been no different, but choose to assault people and the environment in other ways. Similarly, it’s easy to demonize Massey, while Peabody is actually harming more people, for longer periods of time.

    Since the oil companies take chances with lives and ocean ecosystems, and face immediate consequences, they can’t be expected to care about what kind of climate future they are delivering. This means that the relationship of the people and their elected leaders to all fossil fuel companies should be adversarial, and not take the form of throwing them bones such as this one- increased offshore drilling, with weak oversight.

  2. David Doty says:

    There’s an excellent article analyzing the oil-rig blowout here:
    and another here:

    One of the better insights offered was, “we’re lucky it was BP. At least they have the resources to deal with this tragedy.”

    One expert noted it’s highly unlikely the worst-case scenarios that have been suggested will develop.

    And something very good will come of this – it will dramatically slow down off-shore drilling for at least a few years. And that will lead to higher oil prices sooner, which will help politicians to again realize that something really needs to be done before peak oil hits.

    There are sustainable solutions for transport fuels, but the DOE clearly doesn’t think it’s important. A paltry $5.6M is expected to be available for research toward making commodities from CO2. If we’re lucky, perhaps $1M of this pot will go toward efficiently making carbon-neutral fuels from off-peak clean energy and CO2, an approach that has been shown to have the potential to replace all our petroleum usage.

    Perhaps this tragedy will help reduce the influence of big oil at the DOE, and make it more likely funding could go to solutions that could actually compete with big oil.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    I wish I could be optimistic and say that we’d see even a short-term improvement in our energy situation, but I can’t.

    This is nothing but a very short term blip. In years to come, we’ll be in an oil crunch, which means the oil companies will get access to every economically recoverable drop of the devil’s tears (as it’s called in South Asia). And post-peak/post-crunch prices will be significantly higher, which means “economically recoverable” will include much more oil than it does now, in particular unconventional reserves like ultra deep water sites and tar sands.

    The oil crunch will also dramatically increase the support for coal to liquids, an insanely dirty process, unless someone can cook up a magic recipe for CCS very quickly.

    The only thing between us and this future is the willingness of politicians to block these developments at a time when voters are screaming about the price of gasoline. The fact that unconventional oil and CTL won’t materially increase the supply of oil and reduce the price is irrelevant; it’s the political optics that count.

  4. free transit says:

    So what are you saying? You want safe oil extraction? No. The cause is autosprawl — same as the cause of the energy wars.

  5. lizardo says:

    Great post Joe. Hope you are getting your beauty sleep for Diane Rehm show tomorrow. Can’t wait.

    Meanwhile folks you have to read the Truthout piece

    that Joe cited as Greg Palast writes about how BP flat out lied about resources available for the Exxon Valdez spill and that made it all so much worse.

    This is the correct link, Joe’s had an extra http or so and thus doesn’t take you there without some extra steps….

  6. Douglas says:

    Well it’s official…Elena Kagan gets the nod for SCOTUS. Guess you won’t be on Diane Rehm’s show tomorrow Joe.

    Very disappointing choice by Obama. Kagan is a cipher, but what little record she has suggests a corporatist/bankster-friendly mentality. This could have ramifications for climate policy.

  7. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, in your copious spare time you may want to update the state of hurricane science Knutson et. al (2010), which you covered a few weeks ago.

    Kerry Emanuel, who as you know was a co-author with Knutson, is just now presenting a new paper which finds that modeling work by Knutson and others failed to account for something very basic, i.e. the fact that the lower stratsophere is cooling as a result of AGW. He summarizes:

    Observations suggest that the lower tropical stratosphere has been cooling over the last few decades. While the NCAR/NCEP reanalysis captures this cooling over the Atlantic during hurricane season, GCMs largely fail to simulate it. The cooling, especially when coupled to increasing SSTs, results in a large reduction of outflow temperature, an important component of potential intensity. The potential intensity, in turn, not only governs the intensity of tropical cyclones, but is an important component in setting the frequency of storms, as suggested both by downscaling studies and contemporary genesis indices. Atlantic tropical cyclone activity downscaled from NCAR/NCEP reanalyses after 1980 show remarkably good agreement with observed tropical cyclone activity during that period, but when the same technique is applied to two AGCMs forced by observed SSTs and sea ice, the substantial increase in Atlantic tropical cyclone activity after 1990 is almost completely absent, even though the simulations agree well with the historical data before about 1965. Since all the simulations use very similar SSTs, this suggests that the upswing in Atlantic activity since about 1990 is largely owing to the cooling of the stratosphere, which the GCMs fail to simulate.

    Whatever the cause of the observed stratospheric cooling, the fact that climate models do not simulate it and that it is apparently an important influence on tropical cyclones together warrant lower confidence in recent projections of the response of tropical cyclones to global warming.

    I don’t know about lower stratosphere temps in particular since I don’t know if the relevant data is available in real time, but as it stands other tropical cyclone-relevant conditions in the Atlantic are looking substantially worse than in 2005. Among other consequences, unless they get the spill stopped in a hurry that oil would seem to stand a good chance of ending up splattered all over the Gulf and southern East Coast.

  8. Steve Bloom says:

    Hi Joe, I have a two-link post in moderation. TIA.

  9. BP has a history of cutting corners to enhance profits, which is a common approach to business in the world of modern day capitalism, but at the end of the day none of the officers of the company will be held liable.

  10. Barry says:

    The AP story: “The gas flooded into an adjoining room with exposed ignition sources, he said.”

    If this really happened — an exposed ignition source right next to where methane blowout might occur — it will be interesting to find out what category this fell into: Recklessness, Arrogance or Hubris?

    This spill is a logical outgrowth of a decade of letting the foxes control the coop. We’ve celebrated and elevate a personality type that combines these three traits in a seamless swaggering bravado. And we’ve watched them accomplish one epic disaster after another.

  11. jorleh says:

    It must be news to the crowd that there below really is such lots of methane hydrates that just this stuff makes end for the rescue operation.

    Why don`t these clever guys take methane hydrates out of the sea bottom for fuel, not oil?

  12. WastedEnergy says:

    Yes, I would say a very large mistake was indeed made: drilling offshore!

    Agreed on the methane hydrates, waiting for the Professor Pinkhands pundits to start talking about how this chimera is the REAL “solution” to our energy crisis again…hey, at least it will be better than tar sands, mostly because it won’t work at all no matter how much energy you sink into it…

  13. WastedEnergy says:

    P.S. What news of the Russian coal mine explosion and collapse? 12 dead, 87 still missing. I’m waiting for someone to say it’s just an isolated incident and definitely has nothing to do with the easy supplies of not just oil, but all fossil fuels, being depleted. Nope, definitely not a sign of the times here.

  14. Chris Dudley says:

    It seems to me that the cause of massive oil spills in the Gulf is drilling for oil there. Each spill may have its particular errors, but there is no way to make all drilling error free so that it is drilling itself that is the problem, not the particulars.

    The situation is the same for nuclear power. Major accidents are inevitable. The Oyster Creek reactor is spilling tritium into a major aquifer now. And there will be more such spills as long as we use nuclear power.

  15. WOW there are still so many side of the stories that people don’t know hope we can hear all those stories to know who really are to blame for the tragic

  16. Chris Dudley says:


    I think it is pretty important to note that the Obama Administration’s pro drilling attitude probably has played a role. They allowed BP to avoid providing a detailed environmental impact analysis last year. so you should probably add government boosterism into the list of particular causes for this spill.

    [JR: That’s a hard pitch to sell. Obama wasn’t “pro drilling” in April 2009 (still really aren’t, by the way). That was an EIS done during the Bush years. Obama’s Interior had virtually no Senate-confirmed political appointees at that point — GOP held up Dep. Sec. Hayes for months. It is very hard to catch that stuff early on in an Administration — I can attest from personal experience in the 1990s.]

  17. Fire Mountain says:

    The Titanic analogy fits in another way. It is now believed that cheap rivets sank the Titanic. A bean-counter move to save on shipbuilding costs, a cheaper grade of rivets was chosen. If the higher grade had been used, many believe, the iceberg would not have been able to open a sufficiently wide gash to sink the “unsinkable ship.”

    And so it is with $500,000 blowout preventers and adequate tests of cementing, the “cheap rivets” that sank the Deep Horizon, and the ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico. Cost-cutting moves that turned out to be immeasurably costly. I fear the world will be sunk by “cheap rivets.”

  18. Doug Bostrom says:

    Workers, who did basic pressure testing on the seal, didn’t perform a second and more expensive test to ensure that BP Plc’s Macondo well was properly plugged, said Robert Bea, a University of California Berkeley engineering professor.

    Halliburton not only performs cementing but also has a unit that does wireline logging, a means of dropping instrument packages into a well and obtaining a plethora of information. Among the important tests provided by wireline are cement bond and fluid travel measurements. A bond log is (or was during the time I was involved with this) done with an acoustic tool providing a fairly good indication of the quality of a cement job, particularly helpful in revealing voids or other areas with aberrations such as failure to set. A fluid travel log uses a short half-life radioactive isotope allowing an operator to determine if fluid is moving outside the casing, something you don’t want to see after a casing is cemented. A bond log is a prudent measure for a risky well, SOP or ought to be. Fluid travel can and ought to be done if there’s cause for suspicion about what’s going on “down there”, not really a routine operation.

    I’ve read that four Halliburton employees were on this rig, or at least that was the cementing crew. Wireline would have been provided by a different crew. Presumably this would have been a Halliburton-provided service as well though there are other vendors.

    Anyway, I wonder if a bond log was performed on this well? That would be a “second and more expensive” test.

  19. Greg Gorman says:

    On CNN yesterday Senators Nelsen and Shelby highlighted systemic problem with the “cozy” relationship between “Big Oil” and Minerals Management Services as it relates to BP short cuts and inadequate recovery planning. (

    It makes you wonder if other deep gulf oil platforms have similar short comings. We ground airplanes and recall automobiles when systemic failures are identified. Shouldn’t we stop off shore drilling platforms to assure the adequacy of response planning?

  20. Richard Brenne says:

    Halliburton? BP? Bean-counters? De-regulators? Conservative, pro-oil politicians in the pockets of the above from Southern states?

    Anyone want to guess what part karma has played in this?

    And tragically, as with the Civil War and countless other examples, bad karma appears for some reason to often engulf the innocent as well, since it is destructive to all. . .

  21. Mark says:

    NY Times has a post asking the question whether putting the same officials in charge of both overseeing natural resource extraction and ensuring its safety presents a conflict of interest.

    They explore the fact that both the UK and Norway have split those roles.

    Should we follow the same path?
    What are the tradeoffs?