GULF SPILL:

BP didn't shirk safety to save money -- commission

None of the companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon blowout and subsequent oil spill cut corners on safety to save money at the ill-fated well, the chief counsel for the president's oil spill commission said today.

Fred Bartlit, chief counsel to the panel appointed by President Obama to investigate the causes of the disaster, said that despite rumors and accusations, his investigation has found no evidence that workers or decisionmakers from BP PLC, Transocean Ltd. or Halliburton Co. shirked safety to save money.

"We have not seen a conscious decision where human beings favored dollars over safety," Bartlit said during the commission's fifth and final set of hearings, which began this morning in Washington, D.C. "We have not found a situation where we can say a man had a choice between safety and dollars and put his money on dollars. We haven't seen it."

The current two-day hearing has taken a drastic turn from previous hearings, when commissioners questioned experts, lawmakers and Gulf residents about the incident, the industry and the spill's impact. Today's meeting began with Bartlit -- a noted trial lawyer -- and his staff walking through a three-hour multimedia presentation that detailed problems at the well before the blowout.

This afternoon, Bartlit and his staff will grill executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton about their companies' roles in the disaster. But the cross-examination will focus on getting to the bottom of what happened at the well, Bartlit said, not pointing fingers.

"We are not assigning blame. We are not making any legal judgments as to liability," he said. "We are trying to walk a fine line between looking at root cause and not getting into the legal issues. It's a hard thing to do, and maybe we will step across the line, but our goal is to look at cause, not liability."

In preliminary findings released late last month, Bartlit said both BP and Halliburton, the cement contractor on the well, knew the cement mixture used in the well was unstable months before the blowout. BP also blasted Halliburton for the faulty cement job in its internal investigation report released in September. Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, is preparing its own internal account of the disaster and is expected to discuss some of the findings this afternoon.

Halliburton has pushed back against Bartlit's findings and BP's report, saying its cement job was not to blame and that BP cut corners and skipped crucial tests that would have indicated problems with Halliburton's cement.

This morning, the commission staff walked through the details of what happened in the hours before the blast, including decisions made about the cement testing.

"The question is why these good men out of this rig talked themselves into believing that this was a good test," said Sean Grimsley, deputy chief counsel for the commission.

The BP, Transocean and Halliburton executives slated to testify this afternoon will likely be questioned about the cement testing, but they will not be under oath. The House passed legislation this summer that would grant the panel subpoena power in its investigation, but the Senate never approved the bill.

"To those few senators who blocked this commission from having subpoena power, I hope that you are pleasantly surprised and not disappointed" by the findings, William Reilly, a former U.S. EPA administrator and co-chair of the seven-member panel, said this morning.

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