Congress to Scrutinize Safety on Another BP Rig
By John R. Emshwiller
June 16, 2010
Whether a big BP PLC oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico is operating safely is scheduled to be examined during a Congressional hearing Thursday.

Kenneth Abbott, a former BP contract employee who has raised questions about whether the BP Atlantis oil platform lacks documents critical to its safe operation, is scheduled to testify before a Congressional subcommittee Thursday. The subcommittee is looking into the adequacy of the federal Minerals Management Service’s oversight of offshore drilling.

Mr. Abbott claims that large numbers of engineering documents showing the actual “as-built” condition of the maze of pipes, valves and other important equipment needed to safely operate the Atlantis hadn’t been completed as of early last year when he last worked on the project. He contends such documentation should have been completed by the time Atlantis went into operation in 2007. Any lack of engineering documents hasn’t caused a disaster aboard the Atlantis.

Mr. Abbott first raised the issue of Atlantis’s records and procedures in an April 2009 whistleblower lawsuit he filed in Houston federal court seeking monetary damages against BP. The suit included an August 2008 internal email from another employee, saying “there are hundreds if not thousands of subsea documents that have never been finalized.” Such a situation “could lead to catastrophic Operator errors due to their assuming the drawing is correct,” the email said.

BP, in a written statement, said it investigated the allegations regarding Atlantis, a production platform that produces oil from existing wells, and “found them to be without substance.” Atlantis personnel “had full access to the accurate, up-to-date drawings … necessary to operate the platform safely,” the company said. BP declined to specifically comment on the email.

In a court filing related to the litigation, BP says Mr. Abbott’s information concerning Atlantis’s documentation “is critically incomplete and it has been grossly misinterpreted.” The filing added that the “allegations appear to be based on data Mr. Abbott took from BP, without BP’s knowledge or approval, prior to his termination in February 2009.”

In a court filing, Mr. Abbott has contended he was terminated for raising safety questions about the Atlantis.

A BP spokesman said the company didn’t comment on individual personnel. However, the BP ombudsman’s office, which reviewed Mr. Abbott’s case, said in an April letter to him that his complaints weren’t “a driver for any action against you.” It added that Mr. Abbott’s document concerns “were substantiated” but had been addressed by BP.

It’s not clear whether there are similar alleged documentation problems on other rigs operated by BP or by other companies.

Mr. Abbott’s allegations have gained traction with others. Last July, Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C environmental group, picked up the whistleblower’s allegations and wrote two top Obama Administration officials, alleging that safety problems on the drilling platform could lead to a “catastrophic failure” capable of dumping millions of gallons of petroleum into the sea. The letter asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Elizabeth Birnbaum, head of the Minerals Management Service, or MMS, to close down the rig.

Members of Congress have also become concerned. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who has led a congressional inquiry into Atlantis, said he believed the rig should be closed down pending a full federal investigation. In March, in response to a letter of concern from Rep. Grijalva and 18 other members of Congress, Ms. Birnbaum promised a full investigation of Atlantis by MMS. The agency has allowed the platform, which produces about 120,000 barrels of oil a day, to keep operating while the investigation is continuing.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department, which includes the MMS, declined to comment on the Atlantis allegations, citing the ongoing agency investigation and pending litigation regarding the matter.

The controversy raises new questions about how Obama Administration officials handled safety complaints concerning offshore oil rigs in the months leading up to the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig leased by BP, that triggered the massive oil spill in the Gulf. Among other things, criticisms about the Atlantis highlighted a possible gap in federal safety regulations.

Safety experts say companies need to have systems in place to detect and react to “weak signals”—small signs of potential trouble that can hint at larger problems long before they occur. Investigations into the 2005 explosion that killed 15 people at BP’s Texas City refinery criticized the company for failing to see signs that the facility was vulnerable to a major accident for years before the incident.

MMS officials have given somewhat conflicting signals regarding what the agency does require regarding documentation on offshore rigs.

In a response to a request for information on Atlantis from Food & Water Watch, MMS said it “does not require ‘as-built’ drawings for subsea components.”

However, in May 26 congressional testimony, the MMS’s Ms. Birnbaum in response to a question from Rep. Grijalva said operators “are required to have those documents,” adding that “we do not in the normal course review every document with respect to every platform for accuracy.” The Interior Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter, saying it was part of the ongoing investigation.

Atlantis critics argue that such “as-built” drawings are particularly important for undersea components since those parts can’t readily be observed by the eye. Without such drawings, “you don’t know what you’ve got,” said Gordon Aaker, Jr., of Engineering Services, a Houston engineering and consulting firm, who has worked with Mr. Abbott on his complaints and is helping congressional investigators on the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Lack of accurate drawings has come up in the Deepwater Horizon oil leak. In congressional testimony and interviews, BP officials said that because they didn’t have up-to-date drawings of the blowout preventer, the main emergency mechanism for shutting down the well on the sea floor, operators for 24 hours or more used a wrong valve to try to close off the oil flow. Modifications had been made to the blowout preventer and the modifications “didn’t match the drawings,” and “it did delay things,” a BP official told a May 12 congressional hearing. The blowout preventer failed to shut down the well.

Rep. Grijalva said he worried that the failure to require accurate, as-built drawings for all parts of an offshore rig was one more sign of an “impotent agency” that had a “pathological coziness with the industry” it regulates.

Ms. Birnbaum, who recently resigned, initially said the Atlantis investigation would be done by the end of May but in her May 26 congressional testimony she pushed it back to mid-June. In a June 10 court filing in the Abbott lawsuit, MMS said the Atlantis investigation was only 10% complete and wouldn’t be done “for at least three months.”

The Interior Department spokeswoman said ‘the nature of the investigation has changed and beyond that, I can’t comment.” She also reiterated that Secretary Salazar had ordered a fundamental restructuring of MMS.

In May, Mr. Abbott and Food & Water Watch also filed a still-pending suit against the government, alleging that it had failed to enforce federal law regarding the Atlantis. The suit is seeking a court order to halt Atlantis operations.