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BP compromised safety to plug oil well, panel says

WASHINGTON - BP too often operated on the fly in the closing days of work on its doomed Gulf oil well, adding needless risk of a blowout, investigators, experts and panel members said before the presidential oil spill commission yesterday.

They said the company was hurried and made confusing, last-minute changes to plans that were unusual in the complex environment of deep water. They said BP could have operated more safely if the company had taken the time to get the necessary equipment and materials.

"We are aware of what appeared to be a rush to completion," commission co-chairman William K. Reilly said. What is unclear, he said, is what drove people to determine they could not wait for equipment and materials to perform operations more safely.

Lawyers investigating the April 20 disaster have said they found no evidence that anyone aboard the rig or on shore made a conscious decision to sacrifice safety for money. But the panel's leaders made clear yesterday that the findings, in sum, exposed a lack of safety culture on the rig, with Reilly blasting all three companies - BP, Halliburton Co., and Transocean - as "laggards" in the industry and in "need of top-to-bottom reform."

Much of the scrutiny focused on BP's plan to plug the well temporarily, which investigators with the presidential commission say added to the risk of a blowout. Plugging the well is a procedure used to seal it off until the company comes back to produce oil and gas. BP says its actions are common throughout the industry, but numerous experts suggested otherwise yesterday.

Several questioned BP's use of a single plug in the process.

Charlie Williams, a chief scientist with Shell Energy Resources Inc., said the company used a minimum of three plugs in its deep-water wells.

BP also chose to fill the well with seawater, rather than heavy drilling mud, leaving it vulnerable to an upsurge of oil and gas, experts said. The company also chose not to use mechanical plugs, devices put inside the pipe that also can block oil and gas.

Many of the decisions would have required additional time and materials, said Steve Lewis, an advanced drilling technology engineer with Seldovia Marine Services who reviewed BP's drilling plans and communications on behalf of the commission.

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