US Spill panel focuses on US drilling policy as probe into BP gets more frustrating

Publish date: August 25, 2010

NEW YORK – Federal investigators are showing increasing frustration at murky or nonresponsive answers from oil industry officials as they examine the causes of the worst accidental offshore oil spill in world history.

Hearings took place in both Washington and Houston – BP’s US headquarters on Wednesday. In Washington, officials with oversight of the US oil industry were in the hot lights of the presidential investigative commission.

In Houston, three BP officials continued to invoke their rights not to appear before the investigative commission, sending instead one of BP’s London based executives with little knowledge of the specifics of the spill to answer questions.

The hearings in Houston were geared toward examining BPs safety record in the United States and probing why lessons had apparently not been learned from previous accidents, particularly in the chain of events aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig leading up to the explosion that released 204 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Top officials of the White House’s oil spill commission said in Washington on Wednesday that the BP oil spill was a massive “failure” in government oversight and administrations should be forced to consult with experts in the field before making expansive drilling policy.

Commission Co-chairman Bob Graham, a former US Senator from Florida, said regulators and offshore drillers were aware of the possibility of a major well blowout, such as the one that caused the BP spill, but ignored the risks.

“We should be clear. This disaster represents an enormous and shared failure of public policy,” Graham said at the commission’s second public meeting in Washington to probe the massive blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that has since been contained.

Criticizing the Obama Administration for not consulting experts on the decision to expand offshore drilling earlier this year, Graham said the panel may press for laws to force the Interior Department to work with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the White House Council on Environmental Quality when formulating policy.

“There isn’t a culture, and this crosses administrations, that naturally reaches out to the scientists for their participation, therefore it would be appropriate to ask that Congress change the process,” Graham said at the commission’s second public hearing

Liz Birnbaum, who was head of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS)when the plan was released, told commissioners she backed the plan. “In the end I supported the administration’s decision,” Birnbaum said.

She pointed out Interior’s plan was less expansive than one proposed by the Bush administration.

A little over a month into the oil spill, Birnbaum resigned as head of the agency responsible for overseeing offshore drilling, which was criticized for its close relationship with oil companies it was supposed to oversee.

The panel will continue to examine whether the lack of scientific input for the new drilling plan may be indicative of a larger problem with government’s leasing policy over the years, co-chair Bill Reilly said.

“Scientists outside MMS, based on what I’ve been told, do not really think they have been adequately consulted or effectively involved in these decisions,” said Reilly, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Three BP officials still incognito

Since the hearings began in May, three BP officials with intimate knowledge of events leading up to the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig have declined to testify before a joint Coast Guard and Interior Department panel, which convened again Wednesday.

One has repeatedly cited a medical excuse and two invoked their constitutional right not to produce testimony that could incriminate themselves.

Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, the even-keeled lead investigator, appeared to be losing his patience at a Wednesday’s hearing in Houston as he asked ever-more pointed questions about high-ranking officials’ knowledge of past disasters and their company practices.

Nguyen expressed particular agitation at answers given by a London-based BP vice president for drilling, Harry Thierens, who testified that he had not been following news accounts of the investigation into the cause of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nguyen asked Thierens about safety lessons learned from a near-blowout of a BP well in 1999 and two events in 2005: the near-sinking of the BP oil platform Thunder Horse in the gulf and the BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas, that killed 15 people.

Thierens said he wasn’t aware of the near-blowout and could not list lessons learned from the 2005 incidents.

Prompted by Nguyen, Thierens said he couldn’t recall details of the 1988 explosion of the Occidental Petroleum Corp.-owned oil platform Piper Alpha in the North Sea.

“What if I were to tell you that there was a gas leak, which ignited and caused an explosion and killed 167 people in the North Sea? And there was a public inquiry into that incident?” Nguyen said.

“I do recall, yeah,” Thierens said.

“And there were a lot of lessons learned out of that, and the British government made major changes in the way the gas and oil industry operated in the North Sea. Do you remember any of that, sir?” Nguyen asked.

“No, I don’t,” Thierens said.

Nguyen expressed frustration, questioning whether industry managers had learned from past disasters or simply accepted periodic casualties.

“Is it something that, you know, people say that this kind of casualty happens every 20 years?” Nguyen said. “This is what I’m seeing. There are a lot of things that were identified 20 years ago that are still happening right here with the Deepwater Horizon.”

Thierens did not answer.

Investigators were also dissatisfied about the confusing chain of command aboard the rig.

Nguyen characterized the command structure as a three-legged stool, giving authority on key decisions to three people — the captain and a manager, both employees of rig owner Transocean Ltd., and a well-site leader from BP, which leased the rig.

“I just don’t see how everything gets coordinated,” Nguyen said.

Thierens said he lacked a “thorough understanding” of the command structure, a response that left Nguyen unhappy.

Thierens also testified that he was not notified of changes made in the blowout preventer, a key safety device on the oil rig designed to stop the surge of oil from below the seafloor. The changes hampered efforts to take control of the well, he said.

And Mark Hay, a Transocean supervisor, rebutted testimony from July in which rig electronics technician Mike Williams alleged that Hay scolded him for repairing a gas safety valve that had been put in bypass mode. When operational, the device automatically cuts off unexpected flows of gas from the well into the rig, which could ignite and explode.

Hay denied telling Williams that the valve had been in bypass mode for five years and that the entire Transocean fleet ran that way. Hay said he did tell Williams to keep it in bypass mode until parts arrived to fix the valve problem.

In Washington, restructuring of oil oversight

In Washington, Birnbaum, the former head of the now-defunct Minerals Management Service, told the presidential investigative commission that she had “deep regret” for the disaster and acknowledged that her agency’s spill response plans had been “woefully lacking.”

The meeting discussed the creation of a self-regulating structure modeled on the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. The structure could make oil companies operating offshore more accountable if there are shared responsibilities. Even now, as in the nuclear industry, one accident carries steep costs for the entire sector.

The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s powerful lobby, is considering the idea too.

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