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Did BP "Shortcuts" Cause The Gulf Spill?

As if BP wasn't in enough trouble, the company now has Henry Waxman on its case. Waxman has long been one of the House's a most brutal investigators—back in the '90s, he and his staff dredged up those damning Big Tobacco documents showing that cigarette manufacturers had lied about their products for decades. And, judging by the letter he sent BP CEO Tony Hayward this afternoon, it doesn't look like he's going to be any gentler in investigating the Gulf spill.

In their letter, Waxman and Bart Stupak lay out five "shortcuts" that BP allegedly took in finishing its now-infamous Macondo well—shortcuts that led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout. "In effect," they charge, "it appears that BP repeatedly chose risky procedures in order to reduce costs and save time and made minimal efforts to contain the added risk." The Post summarizes the five main points:

-- BP saved $7 million to $10 million using a more risky option for the well casing, or steel tubing. The safer option, known as the liner-tieback option, would have provided more barriers to prevent the flow of natural gas up the space between the steel tubes and the well wall.
-- BP failed to install enough devices to center the pipe in the hole, which increased the danger of cracks in the cement surrounding the pipe. The American Petroleum Institute's recommended practices warn that if the pipe, or casing, is not centered "it is difficult, if not impossible" for the cement to displace the drilling mud on the narrow side of the opening.
-- BP decided against a nine- to 12-hour procedure known as a "cement bond log" that would have tested the integrity of the cement. Although BP had a team from Schlumberger, a leading oil services firm, on board the rig, BP sent the team home and told them their services were not needed.
-- BP did not fully circulate drilling mud, which would have taken as long as 12 hours. That would have helped detect any pockets of gas, which later shot up the well and exploded on the deck of the drilling rig.
-- BP did not secure the connections, or casing hangers, between pipes of different diameters.

"The common feature of these five decisions is that they posed a trade-off between cost and well safety," the letter notes. And, according to Waxman and Stupak, these don't seem to be wholly innocent mistakes—according to internal BP documents, some of these decisions ran counter to advice given by other experts inside the company. The line that's no doubt going to get plenty of attention is this one from BP drilling engineer Brian Morel on April 14: "this has been [a] nightmare well which has everyone all over the place."

In any case, the hearing on “The Role of BP in the Deepwater Horizon Explosion and Oil Spill” is Thursday, so we'll see what Hayward has to say for himself. In the meantime, the chairman of the five biggest oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell are getting hauled before Waxman's House Energy and Commerce Committee tomorrow. (Lamar McKay, the chairman of BP America, is going to that one instead of Hayward.) It'll be interesting to see how far the other execs try to distance themselves from BP.