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Oil spill investigators find critical problems in blowout preventer

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A second, smaller oil containment box has been lowered into the Gulf of Mexico near the site of the oil leak and blown-out well. The box was being slowly submerged to the seabed Tuesday.

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

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.

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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.


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