The engineers were action-oriented and confident; they trusted machines. The scientists were deliberative and academic; they worried about what they might not know. Engineers typically had local roots. Scientists often came from out of state. The engineers called their rivals the “free thinkers down on the third floor.”
“We had huge conflicts,” said Hammond Eve, who ran the environmental division for eight years before retiring in 2004.
Both sides knew which division held the power. The law gave the head of field operations — the lead engineer — the authority to approve exploration and drilling plans. To win changes, the environmental scientists had to work through him.
When tensions arose between the factions, Mr. Oynes cast himself as the neutral broker, but subordinates sensed where his instincts lay. “From my perspective, we can’t sit here and talk about it forever,” he said. “We have to get on with things.” The result was a culture that favored trust over doubt, saying yes over saying no.
One day in a staff meeting Mr. Eve raised a question: with wells being sunk at ever-greater depths, what are the chances of a blowout, a catastrophic eruption?
Mr. Oynes said the answer would come from the head of field operations. “And later on the answer came back that it was impossible,” Mr. Eve said. “They said the blowout preventer will take care of it.” (That head of field operations, Donald C. Howard, was fired in 2007 for accepting gifts from a drilling company, and pleaded guilty to lying on his ethics form.)
Mr. Oynes expressed a similarly confident view in a 2003 interview with Tyler Priest, an oral historian at the University of Houston. Referring to a giant spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969, Mr. Oynes said, “You could almost say it is impossible for that to happen again.” Given modern cleanup technology, he added, “Even if you had a spill, how much harm is it going to do?”
Mr. Eve calls the comment “absurd.”
“Chris shaped the program around that premise,” he said. “The premise was wrong, and therefore the program was wrong.”
He said Mr. Oynes, seeking to increase production, had fostered an office culture that was “pro-industry to the point of being blind.”
Others saw his doggedness in a fight over seismic testing. The industry uses the tests to locate oil, but the high-decibel blasts can harm marine mammals. To authorize them, the minerals agency needed permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
When the fisheries agency declined to give it, the minerals group proceeded anyway — temporarily, minerals officials said, while the agencies continued negotiations. The fisheries service wanted the gulf office to require independent spotters aboard the seismic testing boats, with the authority to shut them down. Mr. Oynes grew livid, calling the idea costly and impractical and saying the boat crews could be trained as scouts instead.
“He was screaming at the top of his lungs,” said a former agency scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears government reprisals. “He said, “N.M.F.S. is trying to shut down oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico!’ ”
The standoff with the fisheries service has now lasted eight years. Four environmental groups filed a suit against the minerals service in June, saying the seismic testing violates the law.
The clash between the agency’s environmentalists and engineers dominated a project meant to guide the agency into the deep-water age, a two-year study of new risks called an environmental assessment. Published in 2000, it framed the agency’s approach for the next decade. It reads like a document at war with itself.
It counted 151 well blowouts in the previous 25 years, about one every two months. It said a quarter had led to spills. It questioned the effectiveness of chemical dispersants and cited the difficulties of drilling relief wells. In noting that a deep-water blowout could take up to four months to control, it all but forecast the BP disaster: “Of particular concern is the ability to stop a blowout once it has begun.”
Then it quickly silenced its own alarm bells, casting spills as a “very low probability event” and noting that companies had “speculated” that deep-water blowouts might cap themselves (because of loose sediment on the ocean floor). It saw no need for new safeguards or an environmental impact statement, a more rigorous review that would have included public debate.
Why not do one, just to be safe?
“I’m sure industry would have been very nervous,” Mr. Oynes said, explaining that it took “some hand-holding” just to do the assessment. “If you start talking about an E.I.S., their alarm bells start going off a bit stronger: ‘Oh my God, what is going on here?’ ”
Still, he said, had the study been necessary, the agency would have done it.