Oil spill hearings continue, failures revealed, blame game intensifies

Executives from BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and other corporations tied to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee today trying to explain why their “failproof” systems failed, creating an unprecedented threat to the wildlife, industries and communities along the Gulf Coast.

BP’s internal documents, which were marked as “classified,” but declassified today by Congress, revealed that the corporation was dealing with a quagmire of deep-sea technological failures and procedural problems when the offshore oil rig it was leasing from Transocean exploded on April 20.

The hearings uncovered evidence that suggested engineers working for the companies failed to predict all of the ways in which the rig’s drilling systems could fail. Yet those same systems and procedures had been deemed fail-proof by the oil industry, which has lobbied for years against stricter federal regulations.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich), said the documents he reviewed showed that at least four significant problems with the rig’s blowout preventer (BOP) existed, including a hydraulic leak and an apparently dead battery that failed to activate the “deadman” trigger, and caused the critical safety system to fail. Other backups that should have stemmed the flow of oil to the riser pipe also failed.

In 2003, a consultant working for the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service found that the remotely controlled submersible vehicles used to activate the BOPs in the event of primary control failures were frequently unreliable, moving too slowly and lacking power to close the valve in the event of a blowout.

The same consultant also found that the shear ram, the component of the submersible vehicles that is supposed to cut through the well pipe quickly to stop the oil leak, was often too weak to cut through the drill pipes.

This was the case with the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

Another report, conducted in 2001 by Transocean, the Deepwater Horizon’s owner, indicated there could be as many as 260 possible ways for the BOP equipment to fail, even though it is supposed to be the final safeguard in preventing a massive oil spill.

“How can a device that has 260 failure modes be considered fail-safe?” Stupak asked the executives.

The results of pressure tests contained within BP’s documents revealed the Deepwater Horizon was experiencing problems with the integrity of its drill pipe. “Significant pressure discrepancies were observed in at least two of these tests, which were conducted just hours before the explosion,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Poor piping could have allowed explosive methane gas to seep into the well.

Steven Newman, president of Transocean, and Lamar McKay, president of BP America, responded that the pressure readings were indeed worrisome.

Newman said that the tests indicated “that there was something happening in the well bore that shouldn’t be happening.” McKay said the issue “is critical in the investigation” into the cause of the accident.

The oil spill hearings and investigations are just getting underway, but the corporate blame game, which began so subtly just after the rig sank on April 22, has picked up momentum in the hearings.

BP has blamed the disaster on the BOP, which was part of the rig owned by Transocean. Transocean, in turn, has questioned Halliburton’s work in cementing the wellhead. BP hired Halliburton to seal the well, which sits a mile below the surface and about 45 miles from the tip of Louisiana.