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May 12, 2010 9:26 AM by Sharlee Jacobs

Political Patience Wanes as Gulf Oil Spill Grows

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO (AP) - Political patience was whittling
away for BP executives who can't stop a broken underwater well from
pouring oil into the Gulf where crews tried the latest solution -
submerging a second containment box designed to funnel the gusher
to a waiting tanker.
In back-to-back U.S. Senate inquiries on Tuesday, lawmakers
chastised officials from BP PLC and its drilling partners over
attempts to shift blame to each other. They were asked to explain a
"cascade of failures" that led to the catastrophic explosion on
aboard a drilling rig and the blown-out wellhead that has spewed at
least 4 million gallons of oil into the Gulf over three weeks.
"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," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.,
chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Later Tuesday, a crane lifted the new box from the deck of the
Viking Poseidon, one of the more than a dozen boats helping the
containment effort, and lowered it into the sea about 50 miles off
the Louisiana coast, a process expected to last several hours or
more.
The first box sunk last week weighed 100 tons and company
officials had hoped it could contain 85 percent of the oil.
However, it was never tried at such depths - about a mile below the
surface - and in 40-degree water. A slushy mixture of gas and water
clogged the opening in the top of the peaked box and it was cast
aside.
The latest box is much smaller - just 2 tons. It won't be placed
over the spewing well right away because engineers want to make
sure everything is configured correctly and avoid the same buildup,
BP spokesman Bill Salvin said. Crews also planned to pump in heated
water and methanol so ice won't amass. It could be in place by
Thursday.
Lawmakers' focus was on what failures may have led to the
disaster. 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.
"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.
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.
The spreading disaster in the Gulf intensified the political
impatience all the way 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.
Uncertainty over what was happening a mile underwater seemed to
confuse Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who was
touring the Alabama coast. While admitting it had not been
verified, she said there was cause for hope that the spill was
slowing down because tests indicated less oil and more natural gas
was coming out.
But BP spokesman Mark Proegler said there has always been a
mixture of gas and oil coming up and that scientists haven't
noticed any significant change in the leak.
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 April 20 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, testimony 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 when they were
temporarily capping the site for future exploitation.
"I'm not familiar with the individual procedure on that well,"
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.
Halliburton's Probert said his company followed BP's drilling
plan, federal regulations and industry practices.

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