BP executives come under fire for Gulf Coast oil spill at testy Senate hearing

A BP executive said an “anomalous” pressure test on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig could have signaled to workers something was wrong hours before the massive explosion that led to the Gulf oil spill.

Lamar McKay, the president and CEO of BP America, made the charge Wednesday at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, the first congressional inquiry into the causes of the spill and the industry response. In making the claim, McKay appeared to be pointing a finger at Transocean, which owned and operated the drilling rig.

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A Transocean executive, in turn, blamed casing and cement in the well hole for not preventing pressure from building up. Steven Newman, Transocean CEO, denied rig workers had any time to respond to the looming threat.

BP owns the well and leased the drilling rig from Transocean. A third official from Halliburton also testified at the hearing Tuesday. Halliburton was responsible for plugging the well hole.
Senators expressed frustration at what they saw as an effort to shift blame for the accident, and also pressed BP on its ability to respond to the accident and its commitment to pay for the damage caused by the spill.

“I can already see the liability chase,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a critic of offshore drilling. Menendez has introduced legislation to raise the potential liability on BP for economic damages caused by the spill from $75 million to $10 billion.

Pressed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and others, McKay said the company would exceed the cap if need be to pay out all “legitimate” damage claims. He said he did not have a position on the legislation to raise the cap.

The hearing was the first of several scheduled in the next couple of weeks as Congress begins to search for answers to the spill, which has poured an estimated 5,000 barrels per day into the Gulf for the past three weeks.

“The one thing we know with certainty is that on the evening of April 20, there was a sudden, catastrophic failure of the cement, the casing or both,” Transocean’s Newman told the energy committee.

“It is also clear that the drill crew had very little, if any, time to react. The explosions were almost instantaneous.”

Several Democrats took aim at BP in the hearing.

“This sure fits, in my view, a pattern of serious safety and environmental problems at BP,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in a statement at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

But McKay sought to take the heat off BP by indicating the fault lies with Transocean.

“Transocean, as owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, had responsibility for the safety of all drilling operations,” McKay said.

The anomalous tests “could have raised concerns about well control prior to the operation to replace mud with seawater in the well in preparation for the setting of the cement plug,” McKay said.

That plug had not been set prior to the explosion.

Senators pressed McKay and executives from Transocean and Halliburton about a process used on the Horizon to remove drilling mud with lighter seawater into the drill hole prior to the installation of a final cement plug.

Newman said BP had directed that that process be done. Some senators questioned whether the process may have led to the blowout, because the mud applies more downward pressure in the pipe and may have been better able to prevent methane from rising up the well hole.

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But Newman said the process is not unusual.

“Reading this testimony I hear one message: ‘Don’t blame me,’ ” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

Despite the complaint, Barrasso was one of several senators to defend offshore drilling.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said of companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico: “We need their production.”