House committee takes aim at possible defects in oil rig disaster

Congressional committee members probing the catastrophic gulf oil spill homed in Wednesday on possible defects in cementing and in a critical safety device as they grilled oil company executives about what Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) called “a calamitous series of equipment and operational failures.”

The BP well, drilled 18,000 feet below the seafloor, may have failed two critical pressure tests in the hours before its April 20 blowout, according to testimony from executives and interviews with company officials, along with more than 100,000 pages of documents.

And the blowout preventer, a massive apparatus designed to contain the gas that ignited the fire on the Deepwater Horizon rig, had a defectively configured ram and had experienced a leak in a crucial hydraulic system, its manufacturer told investigators.

As oil and dead birds washed onto Louisiana shores, the questioning of executives from BP America Inc., Transocean Ltd., Halliburton Corp. and Cameron marked the second day of congressional scrutiny after two Senate committee hearings Tuesday.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee focused on the cementing of the well which may have led to the explosion, and on BP-ordered modifications to the blowout preventer.

Even some of the industry’s usual supporters were critical. Rep. Joe L. Barton (R- Texas) said that documents show there was “in all probability shoddy maintenance,” as well as “mislabeled components” and “diagrams [that] didn’t depict the actual equipment” used in the operation.

The White House asked Congress on Wednesday to provide $118 million in aid to the Gulf Coast, eventually to be recovered from BP. It also proposed legislation to raise the current $75-million cap on oil companies’ liability for economic damages, retroactively, and hike the per-barrel tax that funds a cleanup.

“The federal government will not relent in pursuing full compensation,” said Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. “We take BP at their word. They say they intend to pay for all costs. And when we hear “all,” we take it to mean all.”

The oil spill has heightened a debate in Congress over whether new offshore drilling should be permitted. West Coast senators planned to introduce legislation Thursday to ban new drilling in federal waters off the Pacific Coast. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

As efforts to pinpoint the cause of the accident intensified, BP continued to assess ways to plug the leak, which is spewing 210,000 gallons of oil into the gulf daily. The company lowered a second containment box known as a “top hat” onto the seafloor late Tuesday, but it is also considering whether to insert a tube into the piping. The tube would be ready to deploy late Thursday or early Friday.

A third so-called junk shot procedure, in which shredded tires, golf balls and other material would be pumped into the leak, could be available by late next week, according to the company.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) ridiculed the company’s efforts, saying that BP is “largely making it up as they go.…When we heard the best minds were on the case, we expected MIT and not the PGA,” he added.

Tests used to assess the condition of the cement barrier and casing around the well drew repeated scrutiny. “The timing of the accident indicates that the cementing was likely a culprit, as the accident occurred soon after the cement was injected into the well,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said James Dupree, BP’s senior vice president for the Gulf of Mexico, told committee staff that Halliburton completed cementing at 12:35 a.m. on the day of the explosion. But among tests performed hours before the blowout, he said, one was “not satisfactory” and was “inconclusive,” while the other was “unsatisfactory,” adding that he believed the well blew moments after the second test.

But BP lawyers later provided a different account, Waxman said, saying that after more tests, “company officials determined that the additional results justified ending the test and proceeding with well operations.”

“This confusion among BP officials appears to echo confusion on the rig,” Waxman said. “What we do know is that shortly before 10 p.m., just two hours after well operations apparently resumed, gas surged from the well up the riser, and the rig exploded in a fireball.”

Asked about the discrepancies in pressure tests, Steven Newman, president and chief executive of Transocean Ltd., the drilling rig’s owner and operator, said it “would lead to a conclusion that there was something happening in the well bore that shouldn’t be happening.”

An executive at Halliburton, which did the cementing, has said the company’s work was done “in accordance with accepted industry practice” and BP’s plans.

Tim Probert, president of Halliburton’s global business lines, cautioned against a “rush to judgment.” But he added that had the blowout preventer “functioned as expected, this catastrophe would not have happened.”

Members of the House panel spent a good deal of time questioning the executives about the blowout preventer.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said BP officials told investigators that diagrams provided by Transocean “didn’t match the structure on the ocean floor.” But Newman contended that the discrepancies were due to changes made at BP’s request.

The blowout preventer was modified “in unexpected ways,” Stupak said. “The safety of [BP’s] entire operations rested on the performance of a leaking, modified, defective blowout preventer.”

While Washington hearings drew the spotlight, a joint investigation by the Minerals Management Service and the Coast Guard entered a second day in Kenner, La. One witness, Michael Saucier of the MMS, admitted that the oversight agency almost never tests blowout preventers or other safety devices but relies on the oil drillers to report their tests.

Saucier said a function test on the preventers is required every seven days and a pressure test every 14 days. Federal inspections are generally conducted once a year.

He added that the agency believes the well’s shutdown systems are so critical that it drafted regulations to require secondary control systems for the blowout preventers, but said the rules languished “at the head office.”

The Coast Guard and local agencies have laid 284 miles of boom so far, and more shipments are expected over the next few days. In recent days, the weather has been too rough for boats to skim the oil from the surface or to set controlled burns of the oil.

At least five oiled birds have been treated in response to oil exposure. There were reports that 18 birds, 87 turtles and six dolphins have died, according to the Coast Guard, although some of those deaths could have occurred naturally.

Times staff writers Margot Roosevelt in Los Angeles and Alana Semuels in St. Bernard Parish, La., contributed to this report.