Business

BP stands for Blame Placing

BBC business editor Robert Peston on pointing the finger

If you eat a dodgy chicken tikka masala bought from one of our best-known supermarket chains, and you feel violently sick afterwards, do you blame the supermarket - or will your ire be directed at the anonymous manufacturer of the product which made the tainted meal?

Most of us would, I think, hold the supermarket accountable, if its name was on the packet - although it was another company altogether that had the sloppy hygiene standards which caused the poisoning.

We expect the supermarket to take responsibility for the actions of its contractors and suppliers.

And so it is with BP and its findings released today of what caused the calamitous explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which in turn led to 11 deaths and the worst oil spill in US history.

BP's highly technical report uncovers a whole series of accidents, misjudgements and system failures that contributed to the disaster. And says that no one event can be held as the prime cause.

It also points the finger at two of its contractors in particular: Halliburton, responsible for what BP describes as the inadequate cementing of the well; and Transocean, owner and operator of the Deepwater rig, whose employees are alleged to have made a series of misjudgements in the fateful hours before it all went wrong.

BP also concedes that its own employees made mistakes, particularly when it came to interpreting the results of pressure tests.

But I think it is in BP's recommendations for change that many will see the real story, because there BP makes clear that it needs to exercise far better oversight of those who work for it when trying to extract oil from deepwater fields.

Update 14.38: Pages 185 and 186 of the BP report seem to me to carry serious implications. They are headed "contractor and service provider oversight and assurance" and they are recommendations for how BP can make sure that businesses employed by BP do their job adequately.

Here's a smattering of those proposals:

* "Conduct an immediate review of the quality of the services provided by all cementing services providers".

* "Assess and confirm that essential well control and well monitoring practices, such as...shut-in procedures, are clearly defined and rigorously applied on all BP-owned and BP-contracted offshore rigs (consider extending to selected onshore rigs...)"

* "Require hazard and operability reviews of the surface gas and drilling fluid systems for all BP-owned and BP-contracted drilling rigs."

Now all this does rather imply that BP has been far too trusting of those companies it employs to operate drillings rigs or work on the construction of wells.

So it's all very well for BP to describe - as it does - an extraordinary chain of misjudgements, accidents and kit failure, all of which were unfortunate, but none of which was sufficient in isolation to wreak the havoc we've witnessed for months.

But that's not the same thing as saying "everyone or no one is to blame".

To state the obvious, if BP had exercised sufficient oversight - as the named party on the relevant oil lease - then there is a reasonable chance that not every domino would have toppled in the chain reaction that led to mayhem.

Update 16.07: On the critical issue of the design of the well, a massive gulf has opened between BP and Transocean, which owned and operated the Deepwater rig on behalf of BP.

The outgoing chief executive of BP, Tony Hayward, said:

"Based on the report, it would appear unlikely that the well design contributed to the incident."

BP's shareholders need him to be right: if the well design was seriously flawed, BP would probably be liable for an additional $15bn or so of fines under the US Clean Water Act (because it might be found guilty of gross negligence).

And, of course, in those circumstances, Transocean itself would be perceived to be relatively more culpable, for the alleged shortcomings it showed as the crisis developed.

So contrast Mr Hayward's assessment with this statement by Transocean:

"This is a self-serving report that attempts to conceal the critical factor that set the stage for the Macondo incident: BP's fatally flawed well design. In both its design and construction, BP made a series of cost-saving decisions that increased risk - in some cases, severely."

Which of course implies that BP's owners won't be able to assess the long-term damage to their wealth until a dizzying number of official US investigations and court cases are concluded.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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