Federal Investigators Probe Gulf Blowout

Executives and workers from BP, Transocean and Halliburton are giving testimony in Houston this week about the April 20th blowout of an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. Some witnesses have offered different accounts about what happened and who is to blame.

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And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

This week's hearings into the Gulf oil spill are supposed to be non-adversarial. But with so many lawyers involved and billions in liabilities at stake, they are anything but. Engineers and executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton are all being grilled about what happened on the on the oil rig back in April.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports from Houston.

WADE GOODWYN: The day of the disaster, Transocean manager Daun Winslow had flown in by helicopter with some high-level company executives and was giving a tour of the Deepwater Horizon. The well was nearly finished. And in the drill shack, they were discussing the results of a crucial check called a negative pressure test. Winslow was concerned enough about the tenor of the discussion that he decided to move his executive tour out.

Mr. DAUN WINSLOW (Manager, Performance Division, Transocean): It appeared that there was some confusion about some pressures or volumes circulated, or something along that line. I guess after being within the drilling industry for a while, I thought that it was not a good environment to have a tour group there.

GOODWYN: Winslow was worried enough that he asked two Transocean's executives, including Jimmy Harrell, to stay behind and listen to the drill team's conversation. Later, Winslow got the report.

Mr. WINSLOW: Just prior to 7:00 - it might have been about two minutes to seven, when we were going to the meeting - when we were going to sit around the conference room table, it was a glance across to Jimmy. And I said everything okay up on the rig floor? And he says, yes. And that was the extent of the conversation.

GOODWYN: Although Transocean manger Duan Winslow freely admitted in the first part of the hearing that there'd been confusion in the drill shack, he later backtracked and said repeatedly that there'd been no confusion, just discussion with no disagreement or raised voices.

But the real tension came between Halliburton executive Jesse Gagliano and BP lawyer Rick Godfrey, over who was responsible for the way the well was being cemented just before it blew up. Godfrey went after Gagliano about Halliburton's report to BP about that job.

Mr. RICK GODFREY (Attorney, BP): Now, is there anywhere in this report that said: Oh, we think there might have been channeling?

Mr. JESSE GAGLIANO (Technical Advisor, Halliburton): No, there's no indication.

Mr. GODFREY: And there's nothing in the report that indicates that you recommended - that is you, Mr. Gagliano or Halliburton - recommended 21 or 14 or any more centralizers than the number of centralizers actually used. Correct?

Mr. GAGLIANO: In the report, no.

Mr. GODFREY: Right.

GOODWYN: Centralizers are a critical part of the process of sealing the well once the exploratory bore is finished. As the name implies, centralizers keep the casing running down the center of the hole. If the casing is pushed to one side, it can create a channel for gas and oil to rise to the surface. And according to rig workers, a big bubble of methane gas escaped up the well bore and exploded on the drill floor of the Deepwater Horizon.

Halliburton says it told BP that 21 centralizers were needed, but that BP only used six, so as not to waste time on a job that was already past due and over budget. BP disputes that.

Much of the afternoon was spent in this kind of blame game between the two corporate giants, with retired federal Judge Wayne Andersen trying to referee the bout.

Unidentified Man #1: And there's also nothing in the report that you sent on April the 23rd, dated April the 20 - a day after the vessel sank - that says that Halliburton recommended a bottom's up before the cement was pumped. Right, sir?

Unidentified Man #2: May I object? He's punching kind of hard over here.

Judge WAYNE ANDERSEN (Retired, U.S. District Court, New Orleans): Yeah, it...

Unidentified Man #2: It'll be a fine.

Judge ANDERSEN: Well, it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #1: I thought Mr. Fanning was setting the tone.

Judge ANDERSEN: Well, its a little variety makes these long days move better. But I'll take the answer the lawyer's question being no.

GOODWYN: With nearly a hundred lawyers in the room, representing dozens of corporate interests, the amount of money being spent in billable hours resembles the national debt counter in Times Square. By close of business Tuesday, nearly everyone was approaching wit's end.

One man managed to escape all this, BP's lead drilling engineer on board the Deepwater Horizon, Brian Morel. He sent his lawyer to say he would not answer a subpoena and testify, on the grounds that he might incriminate himself.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Houston.

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