A House investigative subcommittee said Wednesday that the blowout preventer, one of the prime suspects in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, had multiple defects — everything from leaky hydraulics to a dead battery.
Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (from left); Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America; Timothy Probert, chief health, safety and environmental officer, Halliburton; and Jack Moore, president and CEO of Cameron, listen to questions during a House subcommittee hearing on the Gulf Coast oil spill on Wednesday.
Transocean President and CEO Steven Newman (from left); Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America; Timothy Probert, chief health, safety and environmental officer, Halliburton; and Jack Moore, president and CEO of Cameron, listen to questions during a House subcommittee hearing on the Gulf Coast oil spill on Wednesday. Carolyn Kaster/AP
The new disclosures revealed a complicated cascade of deep-sea equipment failures and procedural problems in the oil rig explosion and massive spill that is still fouling the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and threatening industries and wildlife near the coast and onshore.
The disclosures were described in internal corporate documents, marked confidential but provided to a House committee by BP, the well's operator, and by the manufacturer of the safety device. Congressional investigators released them.
The April 20 BP rig explosion killed 11 people. Since then, nearly 4 million barrels of oil have spewed from the broken well pipe 5,000 feet underwater, 40 miles off the Louisiana coast.
The hearing gave the most complete picture yet of the blowout preventer and its actual condition.
"The safety of its entire operations rested on the performance of a leaking, modified, defective blowout preventer," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), chairman of the House subcommittee that held the hearing.
One of the problems cited by the committee was already well-known: The blowout preventer's blind shear ram, which is supposed to cut through the pipe and crimp it, can't actually cut all the way through if certain sections of drill pipe are in the way.
There were other problems, too:
— A loose hydraulic fitting was letting fluid leak out.
— The blowout preventer had been modified, and one of the changes effectively crippled one of its five components.
— A piece of test equipment had been substituted for a ram that could have helped to stanch the flow of oil.
The modifications didn't have good record, either.
After the blowout, engineers couldn't figure out why robots weren't able to make the undersea control panel work correctly. Another control pod didn't work because it had a dead battery. Stupak said that led to the disabling of an emergency backup, called a deadman switch.
Subcommittee members pressed executives from BP, Transocean, which owns the rig, and Halliburton, which did cement work on the well.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) repeatedly asked Transocean CEO Steve Newman if anyone made a mistake regarding the condition of the blowout preventer.
"It would be a mistake to rely on that in a well-controlled situation, yes," Newman acknowledged.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) said important elements of what went wrong were beginning to surface. But, he said: "We have far more questions than answers."
Measuring The Spill
Meanwhile there's still no reliable figure for how much oil is spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard's much quoted figure of 5,000 barrels — 200,000 gallons — a day is at best a rough estimate.
BP has said there's no way to measure the spill, but scientists disagreed.
In this handout from BP, the main oil leak at the end of the riser pipe is seen underwater in the Gulf of Mexico. An estimated 1,000-5,000 barrels of oil a day are leaking into the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform sank off the coast of Louisiana.
In this handout from BP, the main oil leak at the end of the riser pipe is seen underwater in the Gulf of Mexico. An estimated 1,000-5,000 barrels of oil a day are leaking into the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform sank off the coast of Louisiana. BP/Getty Images
Timothy Crone, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, studies natural, superhot jets of material on the deep-sea floor in even more extreme and difficult circumstances than the BP well.
There are several ways to measure the flow of this material. One way is to shoot videos from unmanned subs, called ROVs, and analyze those images to calculate the flow from these deep-sea vents. Crone says those methods should work just as well with oil.
"It's probably not very difficult if you had an ROV and access to the site," Crone said. "Even just looking at video make a very rough estimate."
BP does have ROVs on the scene. In addition to video, there are instruments that measure the flow directly with spinning propellers, and methods akin to highway radar guns that work well deep under the sea.
"These measures are well within the means of science; this is not a new and unproven area, and if they're not doing it, I hate to say it but it seems they're choosing not to do it," said Ian MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University.
BP did release video from the seafloor on Wednesday but said it wants its workers to focus on stopping the flow.
Meanwhile, globs of oil were washing ashore at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The water around Port Eads, a lighthouse that's at the southernmost tip of Louisiana, looked clear, but booms laid out to catch the oil told a different story.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Workers in South Pass, La., clean a beach Wednesday after tar balls washed up onshore.
Workers in South Pass, La., clean a beach Wednesday after tar balls washed up onshore. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
One strip of booms surrounds the shoreline. The second strip, which follows it like a white ribbon, is meant to absorb as much oil as possible. That strip was turning black from the oil; oil droplets breached the barrier.
"This is stuff that has just very recently started coming to shore. It's going to keep going certainly as long as blowout keeps going offshore," said Rick Steiner, a marine conservation specialist who worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. "But even if they capped it today, we've got 4 [million] to 5 million gallons of this stuff in the Gulf and it's going to just keep moving back and forth with the currents and the wind."
Oil sheen is also visible in the Chandeleur Islands to the east, part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.
The wetlands are in the farthest reaches of Plaquemines Parish, the first place where the oil has come ashore.
Parish President Billy Nungesser is asking BP to pay for a $250 million coastal protection plan.
Nungesser wants to dredge and build an 80-mile sand berm to protect the wetlands and wildlife. Nungesser has pressed for a coastal protection plan ever since Hurricane Katrina devastated this area, but he says it's now urgent.
"We could actually see a storm that would put this oil in everybody's backyard. We should be doing everything physically possible to minimize any chance," he said. "We should start pumping immediately and take every, every opportunity we got to keep it out of the marsh."
In other developments Wednesday:
— The White House asked Congress to raise the limits on BP's liability to cover damage from the spill beyond the $75 million cap now in law. It also wants oil companies to pay more into a federal oil spill cleanup fund.
— BP President Lamar McKay said the company will pay any legitimate claim of damages beyond cleanup costs despite the federal cap.
— On the Gulf Coast, a new containment box — a cylinder called a "top hat" — was placed on the seafloor near the well leak.
Engineers hope to work out ways to avoid the problem that scuttled an earlier effort with a much bigger box before they move the cylinder over the end of the 5,000-foot-long pipe from the well.
— The Minerals Management Service told a government panel of investigators in Kenner, La., that inspections of deep-water-drilling rigs has turned up only "a couple of minor issues."
NPR's Peter Overby, Richard Harris and Kathy Lohr contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press