Since that horrendous April night in the Gulf of Mexico when Transocean's (NYSE: RIG) Deepwater Horizon rig -- drilling the Macondo wellfor BP (NYSE: BP) -- exploded, burned, and sank, taking 11 lives with it, virtually every company involved with the drilling process has been blamed for the inferno and the gushing of oil that ensued.

Finding the fault
Indeed, for nearly a year that blame has been batted about like a volleyball, beginning with BP, then slapped to Transocean, and next to Halliburton (NYSE: HAL), whose crew was responsible for cementing the well, and finally to Cameron International (NYSE: CAM), the manufacturer of the 300-ton blowout preventer (or BOP) that completely failed to perform its function of closing off the well during the disaster.

BP clearly has taken at least its share of finger-pointing -- financially and otherwise -- and accordingly, its name will always bear a certain amount of mud in and around the energy industry. That's particularly true if, as often occurs, folks associate the Gulf spill with the company's lethal 2005 explosion at its Texas City, Texas, refinery.

Similarly, Halliburton has been hit by claims that the cement it used on the well was inferior. In fact, one spill commission claimed that the company had conducted four tests on the cement to be used on Macondo, and only one checked out as being strong enough to hold.

An obvious conclusion
I don't pretend to be a card-carrying petroleum engineer, but having spent time in the world of energy, including the offshore drilling portion, pure logic compelled me months ago to caution my Foolish friends to steer clear of overly quick conclusions regarding possible causes of the well blowout and its aftermath: "Before we rush to judgment with guns a-blazing at Haliburton or BP ... the rig's BOP shouldn't be dismissed from the list of potentially causal items."

As luck would have it, a group of engineers hired by U.S. investigators has just determined that the BOP was ultimately at fault. Furthermore, they have concluded that the blowout preventer's failure was tied to a design flaw, not to misuse by BP or any of the other companies.

The engineers who conducted the analysis were associated with Norwegian-based risk-management consultants, Det Norske Veritas. They began poking around the massive stack in mid-November and submitted their conclusions this week.

The firm's 550-page report maintains that the force created by the well's blowout bent the drill pipe, positioning it off-center and jamming shears on the blowout preventer that were intended to slice through the pipe and seal off the well. Instead, the blades were wedged short of closure, leaving an opening that permitted millions of gallons of the well's oil to escape.

Watch for a design overhaul
A similar failure could occur with any BOP of the same design. On that basis alone, it's impossible to know where the tragedy's fault-finding process (and ultimately related litigation) will go from here. Nevertheless, the conclusions drawn by the Det Norske firm would seem to immunize BP, Transocean, and Halliburton, at least somewhat, against the charges of negligence and carelessness that have been hurled their way.

At the same time, following an Obama administration-mandated deepwater drilling halt in the Gulf that began in May and realistically just ended last month -- despite its official termination in October -- the pace of permitting is finally picking up, perhaps in part because even former President Bill Clinton, speaking at a February conference in Houston, referred to the then-snail's-pace of approving new deepwater projects as "ridiculous."

Permit pace picks up
In just the intervening weeks, and following Noble Energy's (NYSE: NBL) receipt of the first permit, blessings for deepwater Gulf projects have been issued to other independent producers, including Houston's ATP Oil & Gas (Nasdaq: ATPG), and to three members of Big Oil.

It's worth noting that, following the BP spill, the members of Big Oil gathered together to form a venture called Marine Well Containment Co. to provide systems and equipment to deal with future deepwater Gulf spills. Similarly, Houston-based Helix Energy Solutions (NYSE: HLX) and now 22 of its closest friends formed a similar contingent called The Helix Well Containment Group.

Thus far, as you might expect, each of the independents, with their new permits in hand, have elected to utilize the Helix group's system, while the majors have opted for their own creation. For that and other reasons, the deepwater Gulf's next chapter has lots of intrigue left in it, much of which will be played out in the Gulf, while the rest will likely unfold in numerous courtrooms.

As this stage, and with unrest in other parts of the world threatening to push crude prices higher, Fools with a bent for keeping abreast of energy -- given its economic and geopolitical significance, that should be all of us -- would be well advised to carefully monitor unfolding events in the Gulf, along with those in other areas of our globe where black gold tends to be buried. 

What's the best way to find compelling new names to boost your portfolio? Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.