In Senate testimony, oil executives pass the blame for massive gulf spill

By Steven Mufson and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; A06

Three major oil industry executives agreed on one thing in a pair of Senate hearings Tuesday: Someone else was to blame for the drilling rig accident that triggered the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The senior executives from the oil behemoth BP, the offshore oil drilling company Transocean and the oilfield services contractor Halliburton pointed fingers at each other in seeking to explain what caused the accident that set afire and sank the Deepwater Horizon rig, killing 11 people.

Getting to the bottom of the accident took center stage for a day even as BP and federal agencies sought to contain or stop the three-week-old oil spill.

BP blamed the failure of Transocean's blowout preventer and raised a new question about whether Transocean disregarded "anomalous pressure test readings" just hours before the explosion. Transocean blamed decisions made by BP and cited possible flaws in the cementing job done by Halliburton. And Halliburton said that it had faithfully followed BP's instructions and that Transocean had started replacing a heavy drilling mud with seawater before the well was sealed with a cement plug.

Senators, striving to become fluent in the language of offshore drilling technology, pressed the executives to explain the failures of the exploration well and pressed BP America's president, Lamar McKay, to explain the precise meaning of his pledge that BP would pay "all legitimate claims" stemming from oil spill damage.

Lawmakers opposed to wider offshore drilling said they were sadly vindicated. "The bottom line is: If you drill in the ocean, an oil spill cannot be a surprise," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said. "All it takes is one oil spill to destroy a coastline."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said, "One of my worst nightmares might be coming true." Congress ought to consider raising the $75 million limit on oil companies' liability for economic damages to $10 billion, he said.

Lawmakers who favor offshore drilling worried about the damage that could be done to public support. "We need the oil that comes from offshore to keep this economy moving," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said, arguing that one-thousandth of 1 percent of oil produced had been spilled. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the ranking Republican on the energy committee, said that "under anyone's most optimistic scenario, our nation will need oil and gas for a long time to come."

McKay placed blame for the accident squarely on Transocean. That company, "as owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, had responsibility for the safety of all drilling operations," he said.

"We don't know yet precisely what happened on the night of April 20, but what we do know is that there were anomalous pressure test readings several hours prior to the explosion," he added in a new disclosure. "These could have raised concerns about well control prior to the operation to replace mud with seawater in the well in preparation for the setting of the cement plug."

McKay also repeated BP's complaint that if all else failed, Transocean's blowout preventer (BOP) should have cut off the well, although several lawmakers noted that while BP has called the BOP a "fail-safe" device, many of them had failed in shallower waters or on land.

Transocean chief executive Steven Newman said the blowout preventers "were clearly not the root cause of the explosion." He said that by April 17, the well had been completed and the blowout preventer was ready to be moved off site. "The attention now being given to the BOPs in this case is somewhat ironic, because at the time of the explosion, the drilling process was completed," he said.

He said it was BP that directed that drilling mud used to counter pressure from the well be replaced by seawater. And he added that the blowout preventers might have failed because of damage inflicted by debris made of cement and steel blown upward from the well.

That moved the focus to Halliburton, which did the cementing work. "The one thing we know with certainty is that on the evening of April 20 there was a sudden, catastrophic failure of the cement, the casing or both," Newman said.

Halliburton's Tim Probert also tried to deflect blame, saying, "We understand that the drilling contractor . . . proceeded to displace the riser with seawater prior to the planned placement of the final cement plug." That plug was designed to keep the oil and gas in the well, one of the last steps before pulling the drilling rig away from the well. Probert said that the cement plug, which he said would have been "a final barrier," was never set.

Meanwhile, far from the Capitol, in the ballroom of a Radisson hotel in the suburbs of New Orleans, investigators from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service began interviewing witnesses about the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Kevin Robb, a leader of the Coast Guard's rescue effort, said the first Coast Guard helicopter arrived at the rig about an hour and four minutes after the first call. A boat captain in the water recorded the time as 11:22 p.m.

Robb said the Coast Guard spent 80 hours searching the waters around the rig, using boats, a plane and a helicopter. They found no one: All 115 survivors had been rescued by the Damon B. Bankston, a supply ship that was alongside the rig when it exploded.

Alwin J. Landry, captain of the Bankston, said his ship was awaiting the completion of a delivery of drilling mud from the rig -- the result, he said, of mud being cleared from the "riser" pipe leading from the ocean floor.

"They were going to be removing mud out of the riser pipe and would be discharging it back to us," Landry said. Then, just before 10 p.m., "I seen mud falling on the back half of my boat, kind of like a black rain."

Landry said he called to the rig on the radio: "I'm getting mud on me." Officials on the rig said they were having trouble with the well. A few moments later, he said, there was a green flash and the noise of an explosion.

As men about the Deepwater Horizon began to gather on the rig, waiting to be lowered in lifeboats, Landry said he began to see men jumping into the gulf. And he heard a distress call from the rig:

"Mayday, mayday, mayday!" Landry recalled them saying. "The rig's on fire! Abandon ship!"

Landry said the captain of the Deepwater Horizon, Curt Kuchta, was one of the last men to abandon the rig -- leaping into the gulf several stories below. Rescuers picked him up and brought him to the bridge of the Bankston. There, Landry said, the rig's captain told him that they had tried to activate a "kill switch," presumably to stop the well at its source.

"They pressed it," Landry recalled. "They didn't know if it worked or not."

Fahrenthold reported from Kenner, La.

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