As crews lowered a second dome into the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday in BP's latest bid to stop the underwater oil leak, lawmakers on ...
WASHINGTON — A House energy-panel investigation found that the blowout preventer that failed to stop an 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 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 oil-field-service firms Transocean, Halliburton and Cameron, the maker of the blowout preventer. In one exchange, Rep. Edward 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.
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.
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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.
Oil is streaming 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 seafloor, 5,000 feet down.
The video was sought by experts who say it might help them measure the size of the leak. BP’s initial estimate was 42,000 gallons a day, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration later put it at roughly 210,000 gallons a day. “That flow rate looks pretty much the same as its always looked,” BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said.
In an effort to contain the leak, BP said Wednesday that it had lowered a second containment box known as a “top hat” near the damaged well late Tuesday 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 cold slushlike gas hydrates — combinations of seawater and natural gas from the well — that clogged an opening in a larger steel box.
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 the device’s manufacturer, Cameron, told the committee 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 the shear ram, the strongest of the shut-off 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 Waxman, D-Calif., focused on the cementing job by Halliburton. He said statements and documents indicated that a test performed on the work 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, said 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 said pressure readings should have been the same.
In 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.
Staff writer Joel Achenbach contributed to this article. Fahrenthold reported from Kenner, La.