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Congressional panel focuses on oil rig safety device

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) holds up a jar

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) holds up a jar of oil taken from the Gulf of Mexico during a hearing May 12, 2010, in Washington on the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. Credit: Getty Images

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

The BP well, drilled 18,000 feet below the sea floor, 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 rig fire, had a leak in a crucial hydraulic system as well as a defectively configured ram, its manufacturer told investigators.

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

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

Traditional industry allies were among the companies' harshest critics. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said documents show that 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 fund.

"The federal government will not relent in pursuing full compensation," said Carol Browner, assistant to the president for Energy and Climate Change. "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 intensified 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 sea floor late Tuesday, but it is also considering whether to insert a tube into the piping instead. 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 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 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 April 20, the day of the explosion. But among tests performed hours before the blowout, one was "not satisfactory" and another was "inconclusive," he said, 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 executives 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 of Halliburton, which did the cementing, has said that the company's work was done "in accordance with accepted industry practice" and BP's plans.

Tim Probert, president of the 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 panel spent a good deal of time questioning the executives about the blowout preventer, the device that is supposed to seal off a well in the event of an uncontrolled flow of oil and gas.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said that 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 the 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.

Saucier said that the agency believes the well-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."

Above water, the Coast Guard and local agencies have so far laid 284 miles of boom, 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 set controlled burns of the oil.

- Simon reported from Washington, Cart reported from Kenner, La., and Roosevelt reported from Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times staff writer Alana Semeuls, in Louisiana, contributed to this report.

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