Gulf oil spill: Rep. Stupak says blowout preventer was modified

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In the ongoing hearing looking into the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) focused on the so-called blowout preventer, an apparatus of valves, rams and other devices that is supposed to seal off a well and prevent uncontrolled flow of oil and gas.

The device, Stupak said, was ‘modified in unexpected ways.’

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said committee members learned from the manufacturer of the blowout preventer -- Houston-based oil and gas services company Cameron -- that it had a leak in a key hydraulic system.

Stupak, who heads the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, said, ‘This leak was found in the hydraulic system that provides emergency power to the shear rams, which are supposed to cut the drill pipe and seal the well.’


Stupak said the manufacturer told committee investigators it did not believe the leak was caused by the blowout. Of the significance of the leak, Stupak said, ‘If the leak deprived the shear rams of sufficient power, they might not succeed in cutting through the drill pipe and sealing the well.’

Stupak said congressional investigators also have learned that the emergency controls on the blowout preventer ‘may have failed.’

A representative of Transocean, owner of the drill rig, told the committee that any modification of the blowout preventer would have been done at BP’s request. So far, there has been no response from BP on the allegation.

[Updated at 11:03 a.m.: In Tuesday’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America, said: ‘We do have reason to believe that it was modified. I don’t know the extent of those modifications.’]

Jack Moore, chief executive officer of Cameron, the manufacturer of the blowout preventers, told the committee:

Since the BOPs [blowout preventers] were still in place in this circumstance, they may have been activated during this event and may have restricted the flow to some extent. Atthis point, we cannot be certain. But we have no reason to believe that they werenot operational – they were jointly tested by BP and Transocean personnel asspecified on April 10 and 17 and found to be functional.

We also do not know whether the BOPs were damaged by the surge that emanated from the well beneath or whether the surge may have blown debris (e.g., cement, casing) into the BOPs, thereby preventing them from squeezing, crushing or shearing the pipe.

-- Richard Simon