Oil spill investigators find critical problems in blowout preventer

By Steven Mufson and David A. Fahrenthold
Thursday, May 13, 2010; A01

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.

First photos of leak

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.

260 'failure modes'

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."

New Orleans hearing

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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