Second House panel launches inquiry into gulf oil spill

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 4 -- A second US House committee began to examine the crude oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on May 3 as Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.), the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s ranking minority member, asked US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar if the US Minerals Management Service’s safety and operating regulations are working.

“News reports indicate that MMS may have sidelined regulatory efforts that would have brought the US oil industry in line with prevailing industry safety standards, which mandate the use of remote-controlled acoustic shutoff switches,” Issa said in a letter to Salazar. “If true, MMS will need to explain why it chose to do so.”

Issa said the committee also will investigate whether MMS improperly awarded safety certifications to BP PLC, Transocean Ltd., and the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig, which exploded and caught fire on Apr. 20, killing 11 people and injuring 17, before its underwater lines ruptured and began to spill oil after it sank 2 days later.

“Reports indicate that the Deepwater Horizon appears to have had a faulty ‘dead-man’ shutoff switch which, if functioning properly, could have averted this massive spill,” said Issa. “The malfunctioning ‘fail-safe’ device raises serious questions about any safety inspections or audits conducted by MMS or third parties during the certification process. This, in turn, casts serious doubt on any safety awards that MMS may have granted to BP and/or Transocean within the past year.”

He asked Salazar to supply the committee with information about regulations and their enforcement, safety awards and certifications, audits and inspections, emergency response plans, and other matters by May 7. “We are keeping Congress informed on a daily basis and will respond as appropriate to these types of inquiries,” a spokeswoman for Salazar told OGJ on May 4. “Our priority at this time is to contain and remediate this oil spill.”

Other inquiries
Issa’s letter to Salazar came 3 days after the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee announced that it would hold a hearing on the accident and spill on May 12. BP America Inc. Chairman and Pres. LaMar McKay, Transocean Chief Executive Officer Steven L. Newman, and Halliburton Co. Chief Executive Officer David J. Lesar were asked to testify.

In their Apr. 30 letters to the three executives, the chairman of the subcommittee, US Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and full committee, US Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), requested for additional information about the accident’s causes or potential causes by May 7.

They specifically asked McKay for copies of any workers complaints to the company’s ombudsman, Judge Stanley Sporkin, concerning construction and engineering concerns at any of BP’s deepwater projects. In a separate letter to Lesar on Apr. 30, Stupak and Waxman requested a May 5 briefing for committee staff members with Halliburton officials about its cementing activities at the Deepwater Horizon rig. Halliburton said on Apr. 30 it would cooperate in a statement outlining the work it performed at the rig before the accident.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, meanwhile, moved a hearing on the accident and spill it originally scheduled for May 6 to May 11 so officials can continue concentrating on their investigation and cleanup. This hearing will examine offshore oil and gas issues which have been raised by the incident, the committee said at its web site. Witnesses will be announced later.

Three Senate opponents of expanded oil and gas activity on the US Outer Continental Shelf also were busy on May 3. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked Mary L. Kendall, DOI’s acting inspector general, to investigate allegations that the oil and gas industry unduly influenced MMS’s formulation of regulations covering offshore wells’ blowout preventers and control systems. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a bill that would raise the liability limit for a company deemed responsible for an offshore oil spill to $10 billion from $75 million, with Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Nelson as cosponsors.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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