US government launches investigations into rig explosion, fire

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr. 27 -- The US government made its first major moves on Apr. 27 in response to the Apr. 20 explosion and fire on the Transocean Ltd. Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig in the Gulf of Mexico as the Departments of Interior and Homeland Security launched a joint investigation. The US House Energy and Commerce Committee, meanwhile, began its own inquiry.

DOI Secretary Ken Salazar and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano outlined the next steps in the investigation already under way by DOI’s US Minerals Management Service and the US Coast Guard, which share jurisdiction. They signed orders that formally convene the joint investigation and outline each agency’s roles and responsibilities related to its expertise.

“As we continue to work with our federal, state, local, and private sector partners to respond to this ongoing incident, we must also effectively determine and address its causes,” Napolitano said, adding, “Secretary Salazar and I share [US President Barack H. Obama's] commitment to devoting every available resource to a comprehensive and thorough investigation.”

Salazar noted, “We will remain focused on providing every resource we can to support the massive response effort underway at the Deepwater Horizon, but we are also aggressively and quickly investigating what happened and what can be done to prevent this type of incident in the future.”

They said the joint investigation will have the power to issue subpoenas, hold public hearings, call witnesses, and take other necessary steps to determine what caused an explosion and fire that left 11 workers missing and presumed dead, 3 critically injured, and an ongoing crude oil spill that the responsible party, BP Exploration & Production, and federal agencies are working to contain and clean up.

Subsequent meeting
Salazar and Napolitano said they were scheduled to meet later in the day with Carol M. Browner, Obama’s special coordinator for energy, environmental, and global climate change policy; White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett; USCG Commandant Admiral Thad Allen; Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes, and senior executives from BP, including Chief Executive Tony Hayward and BP America Inc. Pres. LaMar McKay.

Meanwhile, US House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) sent letters to McKay and to Steven Newman, president and chief executive of Transocean Ltd., the offshore drilling contractor that owned Deepwater Horizon, requesting information about response plans for any accidental release of oil and gas at the site.

“The cause of the explosion…is still unknown, but the cost in human life has been large and the environmental consequences appear to be growing daily,” Waxman and Stupak said in their letter. The companies are trying to contain the spill with techniques that have never been used at these ocean depths, they added. Waxman and Stupak asked the executives to supply the information by May 14.

Their request came a day after three US Senate Democrats opposed to additional oil and gas activity on the US Outer Continental Shelf sought a joint hearing of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on US offshore oil and gas safety and environmental practices overall.

“This may be the worst disaster in recent years, but it’s certainly not an isolated incident,” said Bill Nelson of Florida and Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey in their letter to the committees’ chairmen and ranking minority members. “Before the explosion…, [MMS] reported 509 fires resulting in at least 2 fatalities and 12 serious injuries on rigs in the Gulf of Mexico since 2006.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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