US House panel's hearing on gulf oil spill focused on BOP

US House Energy and Commerce Committee members focused on possible blowout preventer (BOP) problems on May 12 in a second day of congressional hearings to examine the Apr. 20 semisubmersible rig accident and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, May 13 -- US House Energy and Commerce Committee members focused on possible blowout preventer (BOP) problems on May 12 in a second day of congressional hearings to examine the Apr. 20 semisubmersible rig accident and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They also raised questions about the well’s integrity and industry responses at the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee’s hearing.

“Our investigation is in its early stages, but already we have uncovered at least four significant problems with the blowout preventer used on the Deepwater Horizon drill rig,” subcommittee chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said in his opening statement. He said that the BOP apparently had a significant leak in a key hydraulic system, that the BOP had been modified “in unexpected ways,” that the BOP did not have enough power to cut through the drill pipe’s joints, and that the BOP’s emergency controls may have failed.

Stupak said these were not the only possible causes for the device’s apparent failure at the wellsite. He said an official from Cameron International Corp., the BOP’s manufacturer, listed several more in an earlier meeting with several of the committee’s staff members.

“Steel casing or casing hanger could have been ejected from the well and blocked the operation of the rams,” Stupak said. “The drill pipe could have been severed successfully, but then dropped from the rig, breaking the seal. Or operators on the rig could have tried to activate the shear rams by pushing the shear ram control button. This would have initiated an attempt to close the rams, but it would not have been successful. The shear rams do not have enough power to cut drill pipe unless they are activated through the emergency switch or the dead-man switch.”

He said committee staff members also discovered a document published in 2001 by Transocean Ltd., the Deepwater Horizon’s owner-operator, which lists 260 separate “failure modes” that “could require pulling of the BOP.” The report said “predominant failures” included “ram locking mechanisms,” according to Stupak. “How can a device that has 260 failure modes be considered fail-safe?” he asked.

BOP’s manufacturer
At the hearing, Jack B. Moore, Cameron International’s president and chief executive, said more than 2,500 of the company’s BOPs are in service onshore and offshore worldwide. Of the 400 operating offshore, 130 are in deep water. “Each BOP stack is made up of components specified by our customers, is configured to their specific operating specifications, and is tested and manufactured in accordance with industry standards and applicable regulations,” he explained in his opening statement.

Moore said Cameron’s BOPs have “a very long history of reliable performance, including performance in some of the harshest operating conditions in the world,” and that the company periodically issues safety alerts and product advisories to its customers. “It is far too early to draw conclusions about how this incident occurred,” he continued. “The present challenges involved in determining causes are many, in particular, from our standpoint, the inability to examine the Deepwater Horizon’s BOP.”

Also testifying were LaMar McKay, chairman and president of BP America Inc., the well’s owner; Steven L. Newman, Transocean’s chief executive and president; and Tim Probert, global business lines president at Halliburton Co., which provided cementing services for the well. The three had appeared before two US Senate committees on May 11.

They agreed with Moore that the Deepwater Horizon’s BOP will need to be recovered to determine why it did not work. The possibility that the BOP was clogged with debris shooting up from the sea floor, making it inoperative, needs to be investigated, Newman said. “A BOP is not designed to close around significant debris. It is designed to close around drill pipe and most sizes of casing,” he said. “Without knowing what’s inside it today, we can’t say it wasn’t subjected to extraordinary conditions.”

US Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the full committee’s chairman, said in his opening statement that the committee received more than 100,000 pages of documents and interviewed several officials and experts. In addition to the well’s BOP, he said, the committee would examine the well’s integrity, what happened aboard the rig leading up to the accident, and efforts by BP and others to contain the subsequent spill.

Zero vs. 1,400 psi
Waxman noted that a May 6 document released by BP entitled “What We Know” said “before, during, or after the cement job, an undetected flux of hydrocarbons entered the wellbore,” which Waxman said indicated a well breach. The well’s casing system passed a positive pressure test, which was followed by another test of the wellbore below the BOP “after 16½ hr waiting on cement,” the document said. Pressure of 1,400 psi was observed on the drill pipe while 0 psi pressure was recorded on the kill and choke lines during this test, it continued.

Waxman noted that James Dupree, BP’s senior vice-president for the Gulf of Mexico, told the committee before the hearing that the Macondo well did not pass this test. “In the test, the pressures measured at any point from the drill rig to the blowout preventer should be the same in all three lines,” the lawmaker said. “But what the test showed was that pressures in the drill pipe were significantly higher.” He said Dupree explained that the results could signal that an influx of gas was causing pressure to mount inside the wellbore.

When Waxman asked the four witnesses about this pressure discrepancy, Newman responded that it would have indicated that “something was happening.” McKay added, “It shows that something was happening which needed to be investigated.”

“What happened next is murky,” Waxman continued in his opening statement. “Mr. Dupree told the committee staff that he believes the well blew moments after the second pressure test. But lawyers for BP contacted the committee yesterday and provided a different account. According to BP’s counsel, further investigation has revealed that additional pressure tests were taken, and at 8 p.m., company officials determined that the additional results justified ending the test and proceeding with well operations.”

Waxman said this confusion among BP officials apparently echoes confusion aboard the rig as Transocean and BP employees argued how to proceed. “What we do know is that shortly before 10 p.m., just 2 hr after well operations apparently resumed, gas surged from the well up the rise and the rig exploded in a fireball,” he said.

Additional indicators
US Rep. Bruce L. Braley (D-Iowa), the subcommittee’s vice-chairman, asked Newman if there were additional warning indicators aboard the rig. Newman said that there were, but he did not know which would have indicated what was happening. “The alarms are monitored through a vessel management system on the rig. It exists only on the rig and is not transmitted elsewhere, and it went down with the vessel,” he explained. “We do not have real-time, off-rig monitoring of what’s occurring on the vessel. The decisions concerning suspension of drilling operations typically take place at the rig site, which is where we want the data present.”

US Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), a member of the full committee, noted that newspaper interviews of employees who had been on the rig said that there had been frequent gas kicks in the well—more than usual—and that they were concerned about spark sources on the rig which required the rig to be shut down. Stupak subsequently asked the four executives about a New Orleans Times-Picayune report that the well had to be shut down 6 weeks earlier because of a gas kick. All said they were not aware of the story, but promised to look into it and respond.

Other questions involved modifications on the BOP. “While we were doing BOP interventions as the crisis unfolded, we discovered modifications,” said US Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.), the subcommittee’s ranking minority member. “Whether they occurred in 2005 or later is something that will need to be investigated.” He said that Newman indicated that BP had requested the modifications. McKay said that he had looked at BP’s agreement with Transocean and would provide it to the committee. Newman said that Transocean also would supply information from its records.

Capacity to respond
US Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the committee’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said BP badly overstated its capacity to respond in its exploration plan for the field when it said it could handle a 250,000 b/d spill. “Right now, the Deepwater Horizon well is leaking 5,000 b/d, about 2% of the amount your company assured the American people it was capable of addressing in the gulf,” he said. “If your company can’t address a spill of this size, I can’t understand why it thinks it can address a spill that big and you need to rethink the certification.”

McKay responded that BP is deploying three rigs and others are responding with the largest plan that has ever been used in an offshore blowout. “Each spill is different,” he continued. “This one was complicated because the riser is still connected and we cannot connect another one.” Doing so without significantly reducing the crude oil flow first would risk making the spill much bigger, McKay said. BP is investigating whether it can bring in a tanker or other vessel, run a line from it to a point farther down the well, and divert enough of the flow to make connecting a new riser safe, he indicated.

Committee and subcommittee Republicans, meanwhile, complained that the hearing should have included Obama administration officials. “There are some serious red flags in the drilling permit that require answers from the officials who provided it. I would like to hear from them,” said Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.), the subcommittee’s ranking minority member. “It was one thing for BP officials to say there is no blowout potential. It’s another for federal officials to have rubber-stamped it.”

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