Flaws Found in Key Gulf of Mexico Oil Rig Device, Congressional Probe Says

 
By Steven Mufson and David A. Fahrenthold
     May 13 (Washington Post) -- A House energy panel
investigation has found that the blowout preventer that failed to
stop a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had a dead battery in
its control pod, leaks in its hydraulic system, a "useless" test
version of a key component and a cutting tool that wasn't strong
enough to shear through steel joints in the well pipe and stop
the flow of oil.
     In a devastating review of the blowout preventer, which BP
said was supposed to be "fail-safe," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.),
chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's
subcommittee on oversight, said Wednesday that documents and
interviews show that the device was anything but.
     The comments came in a hearing in which lawmakers grilled
senior executives from BP and oilfield service firms Transocean,
Halliburton and Cameron, maker of the blowout preventer. In one
exchange, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) pressed BP on why it
seemed to be "flailing" to deal with a spill only 2 percent as
large as what it had said it could handle in its license
application.
     "The American people expect you to have a response
comparable to the Apollo project, not 'Project Runway,' " Markey
said.
     Steven Newman, chief executive of Transocean, said the
blowout preventer underwent regular tests. He said links to the
drilling rig would have indicated if the device's batteries were
dead, though he said data records were lost when the rig sank.
     It was the second day of congressional hearings in response
to the April 20 blowout that set fire to Transocean's Deepwater
Horizon drilling rig, which later sank, killing 11 people and
triggering the oil spill that now threatens wildlife and
livelihoods along the Gulf Coast. So far, 25 birds have been
found "oiled" in Louisiana, including seven that survived, said
Sharon Taylor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition,
she said 87 sea turtles and six dolphins have been found dead,
though lab tests will be needed to determine whether they died
from oil or other causes.
     Oil is still pouring into the gulf as federal agencies and
others investigate the cause of the accident. On Wednesday, BP
released the first video of the primary leak on the muddy sea
floor, 5,000 feet deep. The photos show a dark, frothy plume of
oil mixed with a lighter-colored substance that officials did not
describe but experts said is natural gas.
     The video has been sought by experts who say it might help
them measure the size of the leak. BP's initial estimate was
1,000 barrels a day, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration later put it at roughly 5,000 barrels a day. "That
flow rate looks pretty much the same as its always looked," BP
Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said after showing reporters
the clip.
     Ian R. MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida
State University who has been arguing that the NOAA estimate is
too low, said after viewing the video, "I don't know how they get
only 5,000 barrels a day out of that. That's really quite a
gusher." But Greg McCormack, director of Petroleum Extension
Service at the University of Texas, said, "There are so many
unknowns there, you can't calculate it."
     In an effort to contain the leak, BP said Wednesday that it
had lowered a new steel structure into the water near the damaged
well to prepare for a second attempt at funneling some of the oil
into a pipeline and onto a ship. An earlier attempt was foiled by
slush-like gas hydrates -- combinations of seawater and natural
gas from the well -- that quickly clogged an opening in a larger
steel box.
     In Washington, Stupak said the committee investigators had
uncovered a document prepared in 2001 by Transocean, the drilling
rig operator, that said there were 260 "failure modes" that could
require removal of the blowout preventer.
     "How can a device that has 260 failure modes be considered
fail-safe?" Stupak asked.
     The blowout preventer was supposed to be the last line of
defense against the type of spill spreading across the Gulf of
Mexico. Stupak said that the device's manufacturer, Cameron, told
committee staffers that the leak in the hydraulic system, which
was supposed to provide emergency power to the rams that should
have severed the drill pipe and closed the well, probably
predated the accident because other parts were intact.
     Stupak said the problem suggested inadequate maintenance by
BP and Transocean. He also said that the shear ram, the strongest
of the shutoff devices on the blowout preventer, was not strong
enough to cut through joints that connected the 90-foot sections
of drill pipe and covered 10 percent of the pipe's length.
     Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who said the
committee has collected more than 100,000 pages of documents,
focused on the cementing job by Halliburton. He said statements
and documents indicated that a test performed on the work about
five or six hours before the explosion showed other dangerous
flaws.
     Waxman said James Dupree, BP's senior vice president for the
Gulf of Mexico, told committee staffers Monday that the test
result was "not satisfactory" and "inconclusive." Waxman said the
test showed wide discrepancies in pressure between the drill pipe
and the kill and choke lines in the blowout preventer. Dupree
told committee staffers that the pressure readings should have
been the same.
     At the hearing, Halliburton's chief health, safety and
environmental officer, Tim Probert, conceded in questioning that
the pressure readings "would be a significant red flag."
     While Congress probes the accident, a board of federal
officials is also investigating. In a hearing in a hotel ballroom
near New Orleans, Michael Saucier, a regional supervisor for the
Minerals Management Service, said the beleaguered federal agency
that oversees offshore drilling learned in a 2004 study that
fail-safe systems designed to shear through steel pipes could
fail in some circumstances. But he said MMS did not check whether
rigs were avoiding those circumstances.
     The hearing provided the spectacle of one federal agency
drawing embarrassing admissions out of another. Some of the
toughest questions came from Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen,
co-chair of the investigating board. He raised the 2004 study
that found that blowout preventers did not have the power to cut
ultra-strong pipe joints.
     Nguyem also asked Saucier how the MMS ensures that blowout
preventers function. Saucier said for that, the government relies
heavily on industry designs and oil company tests.
     "Manufactured by industry, installed by industry, with no
government witnessing oversight of the installation or the
construction, is that correct?" Nguyen asked.
     "That would be correct," Saucier said.
     Ned Kohnke, an attorney for Transocean, replied that a rig's
operators have strong incentives to make sure their blowout
preventers work. "These people are depending on these tests and
their equipment," Kohnke said. "If there's some cutting of
corners, they're at the corner that is being cut. It's in their
interest that these tests be performed correctly and completely."
     Staff writer Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.
Fahrenthold reported from Kenner, La.
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