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Hearings dissect oil spill

Thu., May 13, 2010, midnight

A Coast Guard plane flies over the Development Driller III  platform, which is drilling a relief well at the site of the  oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, on Wednesday.  (Associated Press)
A Coast Guard plane flies over the Development Driller III platform, which is drilling a relief well at the site of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, on Wednesday. (Associated Press)

Well cementing under scrutiny

Congressional committee members probing the catastrophic Gulf oil spill Wednesday focused on possible defects in cementing and in a critical safety device as they grilled oil company executives about what Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called “a calamitous series of equipment and operational failures.”

The BP well, drilled 18,000 feet below the sea floor, may have failed two critical pressure tests in the hours before its April 20 blowout, according to testimony from executives and interviews with company officials, along with more than 100,000 pages of documents.

And the blowout preventer, a massive apparatus designed to contain the gas that ignited the rig fire, had a leak in a crucial hydraulic system as well as a defectively configured ram, its manufacturer told investigators.

As oil and dead birds washed onto Louisiana shores, the grilling of executives from BP America Inc., Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton Corp. marked the second day of congressional scrutiny after two Senate committee hearings Tuesday.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee homed in on the cementing of the well, which may have caused its explosion, and on BP-ordered modifications to the blowout preventer.

Traditional industry allies were among the companies’ harshest critics. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said that documents show that there was “in all probability shoddy maintenance,” as well as “mislabeled components” and “diagrams (that) didn’t depict the actual equipment” used in the operation.

The oil spill has intensified a debate in Congress over whether new offshore drilling should be permitted. West Coast senators planned to introduce legislation today to ban new drilling in federal waters off the Pacific Coast. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

The White House asked Congress Wednesday to provide $118 million in aid to the Gulf Coast, eventually to be recovered from BP. It also proposed legislation to raise the current $75 million cap on oil companies’ liability for economic damages, retroactively, and hike the per-barrel tax that goes into a cleanup fund.

“The federal government will not relent in pursuing full compensation,” said Carol Browner, assistant to the president for Energy and Climate Change. “We take BP at their word. They say they intend to pay for all costs. And when we hear ‘all,’ we take it to mean all.”

As efforts to pinpoint the cause of the accident intensified, BP continued to assess ways to plug the leak, which is spewing 210,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf daily. The company lowered a second containment box known as a “top hat” onto the sea floor late Tuesday, but it is also considering whether to insert a tube into the piping instead. The tube would be ready to deploy late today or early Friday.

A third so-called “junk shot procedure,” in which shredded tires, golf balls and other material would be pumped into the leak, could be available late next week, according to the company.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., ridiculed the company’s efforts, saying that BP is “largely making it up as they go. … When we heard the best minds were on the case, we expected MIT and not the PGA,” he added.

Tests used to assess the condition of the cement barrier and casing around the well drew repeated scrutiny. “The timing of the accident indicates that the cementing was likely a culprit, as the accident occurred soon after the cement was injected into the well,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

Waxman said James Dupree, BP’s senior vice president for the Gulf of Mexico, told committee staff that Halliburton completed cementing at 12:35 a.m. on April 20, the day of the explosion. But among tests performed hours before the blowout, one was “not satisfactory” and another was “inconclusive,” he said, adding that he believed the well blew moments after the second test.

But BP lawyers later provided a different account, Waxman said, saying that after more tests, “company officials determined that the additional results justified ending the test and proceeding with well operations.”

“This confusion among BP officials appears to echo confusion on the rig,” Waxman said.

Members of the panel spent a good deal of time questioning the executives about the blowout preventer, the device that is supposed to seal off a well in the event of an uncontrolled flow of oil and gas.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said that BP officials told investigators that diagrams provided by Transocean “didn’t match the structure on the ocean floor.”

The blowout preventer was modified “in unexpected ways,” Stupak said. “The safety of (BP’s) entire operations rested on the performance of a leaking, modified, defective blowout preventer.”

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