BP Spill Panel Is Probing Rig Command Four Months After Blast

BP Well Manager Said No Warning of Blowout Before Disaster
In this handout image provided be the U.S. Coast Guard, fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010 near New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph: U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

More than four months after the Gulf of Mexico rig explosion that killed 11 men and triggered a record oil spill, a U.S. investigative panel is still trying to find out who held ultimate authority aboard the vessel.

Command of the Deepwater Horizon sometimes alternated between the ship’s captain and a drilling supervisor, Neil Cramond, a BP Plc executive who oversees the seaworthiness of rigs drilling wells for the company in the Gulf of Mexico, testified yesterday at a hearing in Houston. Transocean Ltd. owned the rig, which was leased to London-based BP.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard-Interior Department panel focused questions during more than 10 hours of testimony yesterday on unraveling the chain of command aboard the $365 million rig before the April 20 blast. Coast Guard Captain Hung Nguyen, co-chairman of the panel, expressed surprise that anyone other than Transocean’s rig captain would ever be in command.

“There are pieces of equipment on the rig that I would classify as marine, and there are pieces of equipment I would classify as drilling,” Cramond said as the panel began its 11th day of hearings since the probe began in May. “Then there are some systems that support both the marine and drilling operations.”

The eight-member panel has been wading through thousands of pages of witness interviews, schematic drawings, pressure charts and e-mails to reconstruct what went wrong when natural gas surged up a pipe connecting the rig to the seafloor and erupted on board. BP, the largest oil producer in the Gulf, was the operator and majority owner of the well, located about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast in waters a mile deep.

Parties of Interest

Curt Kuchta, captain of the Deepwater Horizon, and Jimmy Wayne Harrell, the offshore installation manager on duty when the rig exploded and sank, are among seven individuals and nine companies named by the panel as parties of interest, which means they could become targets for criminal charges.

Paul Johnson, a Transocean manager who oversaw personnel and training for the Deepwater Horizon from an office in Houston, testified that when a rig is engaged in drilling, the drilling supervisor is in command. When the vessel is sailing from one location to another or conducting maintenance at sea, the captain is in charge, he said.

Johnson said he didn’t know whether or how command changed hands after the blast set the rig on fire and workers began running to lifeboats. The drilling supervisor also is known as an offshore installation manager, or OIM.

‘Abundantly Clear’

“As soon as a vessel becomes endangered the captain would become master,” Johnson said. “In some cases, the captain and OIM would have to discuss it, but in others it would be abundantly clear.”

Transocean, the world’s largest offshore oil driller, has no written rules for when and how command is to be handed over, Johnson said.

“Are you clear who was in charge?” Nguyen asked.

“I’m not sure how the transition went between the two parties when the situation occurred,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure of the relationship, of the handover, between the two men.”

The dual command structure is routine on all of Geneva- based Transocean’s deep-water rigs, he said. Johnson told the panel the system shouldn’t be changed.

Dual Command

Cramond told the panel that he’s never seen a problem with the dual-command system aboard any rigs he oversees, and he’s never had cause to suggest it be changed.

Cramond was promoted to Gulf of Mexico marine authority about five years ago, after BP created the position to improve operations in response to the near sinking of the company’s $1 billion Thunder Horse production platform in 2005.

The panel is scheduled to gather testimony from employees of BP and from Transocean, Halliburton Co. and other contractors for the rest of this week in a hotel ballroom in Houston.

The explosion led to a shutdown of new deep-water exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and erased more than $40 billion in the market value of BP. The blowout is under investigation by the Justice Department and numerous House and Senate committees.

Of the 126 people on board the rig that night, 115 got away by climbing into escape capsules or jumping from the deck into the sea.

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