Product Liability: BP May Have Used Cheaper, Less Reliable Design

According to a recent investigation by the Orlando Sentinel, BP’s design choices for its deep-water oil well may have been flawed. The Sentinel interviewed several engineering experts and reviewed documents for its late-May report, which concluded that BP chose to use a cheaper but less reliable design as it built the well. Along with a number of other mechanical and maintenance failures, the inadequate design may expose BP to class action product liability claims by those injured by the oil spill.
“The deepwater Gulf of Mexico is an especially challenging place to drill,” explained Louisiana State University petroleum engineering professor John Rogers Smith in the Sentinel report.
Texas A&M petroleum engineering professor F.E. Beck, testifying recently before one of the U.S. Senate committees investigating the spill, said, “There are clear alternatives to the methods BP used that most engineers in the drilling business would consider much more reliable and safer.”
After reviewing the log of activities on the Deepwater Horizon, drilling engineers interviewed by the Sentinel explained that BP’s well design called for a single permanent pipe, or “casing,” which would be 13,293 feet long. The casing would be finished with an injection of drilling cement. The cementing process can often be problematic because of the geology in the region.
More commonly used in Gulf drilling operations is a system with an additional layer of pipe called a liner. The liner and casing are locked together with two cement jobs, which makes them less prone to failure. A liner also provides more options for testing and repair.
The BP well “is not a design we would use,” said another veteran deep-water engineer interviewed by the Sentinel. He estimated that the well design virtually always used by his own company, which uses both a liner and casing, was approximately ten times more safe and reliable than the design BP used. However, the safer design might have cost BP an additional $7 million to implement.
Regulation by the Minerals Management Service does not require that wells use the liner system.
It is not clear whether BP’s choice to use the casing-only design caused the accident. Many of the experts the Sentinel interviewed were unwilling to hazard a guess because some important site-specific factors are not known publically.
However, it is clear that BP experienced a large number of problems when drilling the well. Drilling in challenging areas like the Gulf requires a great deal of judgment, and it remains to be seen whether BP’s well design caused the spill. However, if equipment or design failures are responsible, BP and the other companies involved could face product liability lawsuits for the injuries and wrongful deaths of the workers and any other injuries caused by the disaster.

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