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May 12, 2010 9:19 AM by Sharlee Jacobs

Executives Grilled on Oil Spill

WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress called BP and its drilling partners
to account Tuesday for a "cascade of failures" behind the
spreading Gulf oil spill, zeroing in on a crucial chain of events
at the deep-sea wellhead just before an explosion consumed the rig
and set off the catastrophic rupture.
In back-to-back Senate inquiries, lawmakers chastised executives
of the three companies at the heart of the massive spill over
attempts to shift the blame to each other. And they were asked to
explain why better preparations had not been made to head off the
accident.
"Let me be really clear," Lamar McKay, chairman of BP America,
told the hearing. "Liability, blame, fault - put it over here."
He said: "Our obligation is to deal with the spill, clean it up
and make sure the impacts of that spill are compensated, and we're
going to do that."
By "over here," McKay meant the witness table at which BP,
Transocean and Halliburton executives sat shoulder to shoulder. And
despite his acknowledgment of responsibility, each company defended
its own operations and raised questions about its partners in the
project gone awry.
Lawmakers compared the calamity to some of history's most
notorious mishaps from sea to space in the first congressional
inquiry into the April 20 explosion and so-far unstoppable spill.
In the crowded hearing room, eight young activists sat in quiet
protest, with black T-shirts saying, "Energy Shouldn't Cost
Lives." Several wore black painted spots near their eyes to
symbolize tear drops made from oil.
Said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy and
Natural Resources Committee, "If this is like other catastrophic
failures of technological systems in modern history, whether it was
the sinking of the Titanic, Three Mile Island, or the loss of the
Challenger, we will likely discover that there was a cascade of
failures and technical and human and regulatory errors."
The corporate finger pointing prompted an admonishment from
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of oil-rich Alaska that "we are all
in this together" in trying to shut off the oil and find a safer
way to exploit vital energy.
"This accident has reminded us of a cold reality, that the
production of energy will never be without risk or environmental
consequence," she said. Still, she said, "there will be no
excuse" if operators are found to have violated the law.
Failure to cap the leak was intensifying impatience, from the
contaminated Gulf waters to the White House.
"The president is frustrated with everything, the president is
frustrated with everybody, in the sense that we still have an oil
leak," spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "That includes us, that
includes everybody that's involved with this."
After an icelike buildup thwarted a plan over the weekend to
siphon off most of the leak using a huge, 100-ton containment box,
a second, smaller box was lowered into the water late Tuesday near
the blown-out well. The box was being slowly submerged to the
seabed but it won't be placed over the spewing well right away. BP
spokesman Bill Salvin said engineers want to make sure everything
is configured correctly and avoid an ice buildup.
Salvin said undersea robots will position the box over the
gusher by Thursday.
Ramifications from the environmental crisis spilled over into
landmark climate change and energy legislation that is coming out
Wednesday. The bill from Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman
proposes letting coastal states veto drilling projects off the
shores of neighboring states if they can show the potential for
harm.
The impact is being felt in the realm of regulation, too.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposed splitting his department's
Minerals Management Service in two to make safety enforcement
independent of the service's other main function - collecting
billions in royalties from the drilling industry.
Senators sought assurances that BP PLC will pay what could
amount to billions of dollars in economic and environmental
damages. McKay repeatedly said his company would pay for cleanup
costs and all "legitimate" claims for damages, and not try to
limit itself to an existing federal limit of $75 million on such
damages.
BP was the exploratory well's owner and overall operator,
Transocean the rig's owner and Halliburton a subcontractor that was
encasing the well pipe in cement before plugging it in anticipation
of future production.
The explosion is thought to have begun with a surge of methane
gas from deep within the well, and while the cause is still under
early investigation, the testimony Tuesday provided some insight
into what might have been involved.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama grew frustrated
grilling the executives on why engineers replaced a heavy "mud"
compound in the well with much lighter sea water - thereby reducing
downward pressure on the oil - when they were temporarily capping
the site for future exploitation. He quoted an oil rig worker
saying, "That's when the well came at us, basically."
"I'm not familiar with the individual procedure on that well,"
BP's McKay said.
Steven Newman, Transocean's president and CEO, and Halliburton
executive Tim Probert repeatedly told Sessions they did not know
how often sea water instead of the compound was used to seal Gulf
wells.
"Well, you do this business, do you not?" the senator
demanded. "You're under oath. I'm just asking you a simple
question."
New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg remarked in the day's other
hearing: "The conclusion that I draw is that nobody assumes the
responsibility."
McKay said that a key piece of safety equipment, the aptly named
blowout preventer, had failed to work and made it clear it was
owned by Transocean. "That was the fail safe in case of an
accident," said McKay.
But Transocean's Newman said offshore production projects
"begin and end with the operator, in this case BP" and that his
company's drilling job was completed three days before the
explosion and there's "no reason to believe" the blowout
protector mechanics failed.
And Newman wanted senators to know Halliburton was in the
process of pouring cement into the pipe to plug it but the final
well cap had not yet been put in place.
Halliburton's Probert said his company followed BP's drilling
plan, federal regulations and industry practices.
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