BP's Biggest Problem? Safety Lapses Plague Its U.S. Operations

Last Updated May 18, 2010 12:57 PM EDT

BP's first successful attempt to capture some of the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico has been overshadowed -- once again -- by reports of safety lapses in its other operations. What's so striking, and quite frankly scary, is that these safety concerns and violations aren't isolated, insignificant incidents. These are more than safety brain farts. They're serious violations that pervade BP's U.S. operations.

First, there are the two BP refineries that account for 97 percent of all willful violations found in the refining industry over the past three years, according to a report released Monday by the Center for Public Integrity. OSHA contends that most of those were considered "egregious willful" violations, which means BP committed these with plain indifference to or intentional disregard for employee safety. Prior to the report's release, one senior OSHA official described BP as a company with a "systematic safety problem" that hasn't sufficiently improved safety at its refineries despite repeated warnings.

And then there's BP's deepwater offshore oil and gas drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Food and Water Watch, along with a former BP subcontractor, sued the U.S. government this week to force a shutdown of the oil and gas company's Atlantis oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico over concerns the facility lacks thousands of engineering documents required for safe operation.

The concerns about the Atlantis rig are particularly disturbing because BP seems to have forgotten the valuable and painful lesson it learned just last month in those first days after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. BP tries to spin this as a minor internal paperwork problem. But Mikal C. Watts, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, says it's far more serious.

Without these drawings the people that are working on these rigs are flying blind on terms of how to safely operate BP rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
BP knows exactly what happens when you're flying blind. BP engineers scrambled to activate underwater safety equipment called a blowout preventer once the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico was discovered. Unfortunately for BP and the rest of us, the device had been changed so much it no longer matched the diagrams the engineers were working off of. In short, they could get it to work because they didn't know what they were working with.

So, here we are. Another oil platform, another case of insufficient engineering documents needed to operate it safely. These accusations aren't coming from some whack job, either. BP hired an independent firm to find out if the subcontractor's allegations could be substantiated. And they were.

Keep in mind that these "lapses" are coming from a company that has made improving safety its primary goal ever since Tony Hayward became CEO in 2007. The reason behind BP's big safety effort? A fatal blast at its Texas City refinery in 2005; and a year later, a 200,000-gallon oil spill from a BP transit pipe in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. Investigators later said cuts to capital spending and maintenance contributed to both accidents.

BP is deeply vested in the United States, specifically the Gulf of Mexico. The oil and gas company began snapping up lease blocks in the 1980s and is now the largest offshore operator in the Gulf of Mexico. And yet, BP seems unwilling to take the steps to protect its business here.

Image via Flickr user Deepwater Horizon Response, CC 2.0 See additional BNET coverage of the oil spill: