Oil spill hearings open in Louisiana and DC

Hearings began today in Washington and Louisiana on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico created when the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded on April 20 and sank two days later. Executives representing BP, based in London with North American headquarters in Houston, will testify alongside partners Transocean Ltd., based in Geneva, Switzerland, and Halliburton Co. of Houston.

According to testimony prepared for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, corporations involved in the Deepwater Horizon incident are expected to give conflicting accounts of responsibility on the causes of the explosion.

“Transocean’s blowout preventer failed to operate,” Lamar McKay, chairman of BP America Inc., said in a prepared opening statement for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

According to Tim Probert, president of global business lines at Halliburton, his company was “contractually bound,” to follow BP’s instructions for sealing the wellhead, located about a mile beneath the surface and 40 miles off of Louisiana’s vulnerable wetlands.

“All offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator,” said Stephen Newman, Transocean CEO, adding that BP chose “where and how” its own well was to be drilled.

BP had been leasing the mobile Deepwater Horizon rig from Transocean to conduct exploratory drilling. BP has said it was on the brink of locating a significant oil deposit when the rig exploded and sank.

The oil giant continues to pursue a number of techniques designed to stem the oil leak, which most estimates say exceeds 200,000 gallons or 5,000 barrels daily. However, BP CEO Tony Hayward emphasized that his company is walking through uncharted territory in finding a solution.

Speaking from Houston, Hayward said that BP is conducting “the largest, most comprehensive spill response in the history of the United States or the oil and gas industry by probably two orders of magnitude.”

And, even though BP fought stricter federal regulations on enhanced blowout prevention safety, it now finds itself facing “quite a few unknowns,” in Hayward’s words.

In Kenner, Louisiana, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service opened a 2-day public hearing to review evidence and information subpoenaed from corporations tied to the blast.

A pair of protestors started the hearings off on an honest note, with one man shouting, “Materials Management should not be entrusted with the investigation of an enormous tragedy it helped to create,” and a woman who yelled, “Stop offshore drilling now, this hearing is not legitimate.”

Minerals Management, a section of the Interior Department, has known for several years that the offshore oil industry failed to use adequate blowout preventer technologies and failsafes, but effectively allowed the oil lobby to decide what protections were needed, which it did with profit as the determining factor.

Most of the Coast Guard hearing today involved the response to the blast and the rescue of rig workers by the federal government and other entities.