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  • Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.
 

How BP Clashed and Cooperated With Scientists

22 November 2010 5:51 pm
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A detail-rich, 39-page working paper from staff members of the oil spill commission says the government and BP have "much to take pride in" for their response to the crisis, given that "neither was ready for a disaster of this nature." It says, however, that the failure to get an accurate rate of oil flow early on may have "impeded" BP's efforts to have oil-collection equipment ready when needed.

Particularly interesting is the paper's report on relations between government and academic scientists—most from U.S. Department of Energy national labs—and staff members from BP and other companies. At first, because the Department of Energy researchers did not have a formal role within the "Unified Command" structure set up to control the gusher, they were shut out of meetings for the first month or so. The effort bumbled through the top hat, junk shot, and top kill strategies—all of which failed. "While MMS [U.S. Minerals Management Service], the Coast Guard, and Dr. McNutt worked out of offices on the third floor of BP's Houston headquarters, the national labs team sat on the 18th floor," the report notes.

Later, as government scientists began to get involved, tension was constant between the public team and their counterparts in BP.

The stress derived in part, it seems, because of outlook:

A senior government official characterized BP's attitude prior to the increased supervision as "hope for the best, plan for the best, expect the best."206 One of the science advisors told Commission staff that, before the science team stepped up its oversight, BP had failed to consistently consider worst-case scenarios.207 Tooms of BP, on the other hand, expressed frustration to Commission staff about the nature of the science team's pushback, arguing that theoretical scientists consider risk differently than engineers, that BP had expertise in managing risk, and that the science team slowed the containment effort.

The scientists were full of ideas, but their creativity was a double-edged sword:

In addition to challenging BP's containment ideas, the science advisors developed certain ideas of their own and asked the on-site government engineers to pursue them. Some of the ideas were good ones, as when Dr. Garwin suggested collecting oil through the choke and kill lines.210 Other ideas required the on-site personnel to expend significant effort proving their lack of feasibility to the off-site science advisors.211 Several members of the on-site team told Commission staff that, while the science advisors added substantial value in assessing BP's proposals, they could also be a distraction, forcing the on-site team to chase down ideas it found unhelpful and undermining its working relationship with BP engineers.212

Later, the two sides became accustomed to each other. But that didn't mean smooth sailing. At another point, the report says, the federal science team forced BP to measure pressure from a gauge on top of the top-hat structure. "The gauge was probably malfunctioning and, in retrospect, attempting to obtain data from it may not have been the best use of scarce resources (including the remotely operated vehicle that had to stay tethered to the gauge)," the commission working paper concludes. Government efforts to reach out to BP's competitors also had a mixed effect on the effort. BP engineers resented having their competitors involved, insisting that this could pose a conflict of interest, while the usefulness of their input was unclear. At one point, National Medal of Science winning physicist Richard Garwin feared that a capping effort had caused an undersea rupture and that it was "too late" to stop it. And yet at other points, the science team helped stop the gusher by insisting on highly accurate pressure sensors on a "capping stack."

The commission staff members' final word on the role of the government:

At the time of the blowout, the government was unprepared to oversee a deepwater source control effort … to provide meaningful supervision, the government needs access to sufficient expertise in deepwater drilling and containment—through the Department of the Interior, the national labs, outside scientists, or otherwise. Thus, the Commission may wish to recommend that the government develop and maintain additional in-house expertise in petroleum engineering, as well as formalize procedures to make the best use of outside industry experts during an incident.337