Congressional inquiries into gulf accident, spill take shape

Congressional responses to Gulf of Mexico drilling rig accident and subsequent crude oil spill took sharper focus as a US Senate committee prepared to consider broader policy implications, while a US House subcommittee concentrated on the accident’s possible causes.

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 3--Congressional responses to Gulf of Mexico drilling rig accident and subsequent crude oil spill took sharper focus as a US Senate committee prepared to consider broader policy implications, while a US House subcommittee concentrated on the accident’s possible causes.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Committee will hold a hearing May 12 to examine the adequacy of the companies' safety measures and emergency response to the Apr. 20 accident and the status of recovery efforts.

Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig drilled the Macondo well for BP Exploration & Production Inc. about 52 miles southeast of Venice, La., in 4,992 ft of water near Rigel gas field. The Macondo well struck oil and associated gas at more than 18,000 ft TD. An explosion and fire left 11 crew members missing and presumed dead. The Deepwater Horizon later sank.

As of May 3, an estimated 5,000 b/d was still flowing while spill response teams work to stop the flow of oil.

US Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the subcommittee’s chairman, and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the full committee, sent letters to BP America Inc. Chairman LaMar McKay, Transocean Chief Executive Steven Newman, and Halliburton Co. Chairman David J. Lesar. The letter asks them to testify.

Stupak and Waxman announced the hearing on Apr. 29 as they sent letters to McKay and Newman requesting copies of the inspection reports of the rig and the blowout preventer. They also requested documents related to the companies' policies on using remote control acoustic shut off switches, and to Lesar regarding Halliburton’s cementing activities at the Deepwater Horizon.

The hearing will come a day after the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's hearing about the accident and spill's possible impacts on federal offshore oil and gas policies, including the US Minerals Management Service's recently announced proposed 2012-17 Outer Continental Shelf strategy. Originally scheduled for May 6, the committee moved it to May 11 on May 3.

One committee member urged a measured, careful response to the accident and spill. “We must apply the lessons of past tragedies to this one, so we can make the best and wisest decisions that will instruct us about how to move forward,” US Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) said in an Apr. 29 floor speech. “I don't believe we can react in fear. I don't believe that we should retreat.”

Two choices
She said the US could respond as it did following the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant incident in 1979, when new nuclear power plant plans were scrapped and France took the global technology lead in the next 30 years. The nation also could respond as it did following the Challenger space shuttle’s explosion in 1986 by striving to find and eliminate the accident’s causes while continuing the space program, Landrieu said.

“No one has ever claimed, including myself, who's an unabashed proponent of the industry, that drilling is risk free. The people of my home state of Louisiana know these risks better than anyone, both to the safety of the rig workers and to the environment itself. But we also know that America needs 20 million bbl of oil a day to keep this economy moving.... So let's be careful in the way we move forward. Let's be measured. Let's be open to hear the facts. Let's hold people accountable for what happened, understand what happened and prevent it from happening again,” she said.

But US Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who opposes expanding OCS oil and gas activity, sent a letter on May 3 to Mary Kendall, the US Department of the Interior’s acting inspector general, requesting an investigation of US Minerals Management Service regulations regarding reliable back-up systems for capping underwater wells.

“More specifically, MMS allowed oil rigs not to have audio control devices capable of remotely activating a wellhead's blowout preventer. At least two other major countries that permit offshore drilling require rigs to carry such devices,” Nelson said in his letter. “Also, newly published accounts indicate regulators didn't act on other concerns that oil-drilling safety equipment may not function in a deep-water environment.” He asked that the investigation also examine whether the oil and gas industry exercised undue influence as the regulations were formulated.

Nelson’s letter followed his Apr. 29 announcement that he plans to introduce a bill which would prevent DOI and MMS from proceeding on developing a new 5-year OCS schedule and suspend any new OCS exploration and production activities until the federal investigation of the accident and spill is completed.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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