Ties Between Regulator, Firms Eyed In Gulf Spill President Obama described the relationship between the Minerals Management Service and the oil companies as "cozy." Meanwhile, congressional investigators are looking at what happened on the Deepwater Horizon before the April 20 blast that killed 11 people.
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Ties Between Regulator, Firms Eyed In Gulf Spill

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Ties Between Regulator, Firms Eyed In Gulf Spill

Ties Between Regulator, Firms Eyed In Gulf Spill

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Crude oil and natural gas continue to gush from an open well in the Gulf of Mexico. It's now more than three weeks since the drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, suffered a blowout, killing 11 crewmembers, sinking the rig and rupturing its well pipes. President Obama yesterday announced what he called a top-to-bottom reform of the federal agency that regulates offshore drilling. And congressional investigators have been probing what happened on the Deepwater Horizon before the blast.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: You may have heard of something called a captive agency. It's an agency that's supposed to regulate an industry but ends up shifting its allegiance to the industry itself. That's the reputation of the federal Minerals Management Service, or MMS, as the president noted.

President BARACK OBAMA: For a decade or more, there's been a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill. Seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies.

OVERBY: The blowout rig was owned by Transocean Limited, which had recently received an award from MMS, a point made by Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma at one of the congressional hearing this past week.

Senator JAMES INHOFE (Republican, Oklahoma): That was for, quote, "outstanding drilling operations and perfect performance period." So, anyway, these efforts were out there and - does that imply - that would imply to me that you've been complying with the recommendations that the MMS has had.

OVERBY: But being on the right side of MMS wasn't much comfort for Transocean, or for BP Americas, which leased the rig, or Halliburton, which did all the cement work on the well. One big question is the blowout preventer, a 300-ton set of safety valves designed to shut off the well in an emergency.

Mr. TONY HAYWARD (CEO, BP): It's unprecedented for it to fail.

OVERBY: That was CEO Tony Hayward of BP, shortly after the accident. But it turns out it's not unprecedented. What's worse, this particular blowout preventer had leaking hydraulics and a dead battery. In fact, the last chance dead-man switch wasn't even designed to function in the chaos of a blowout like this one. For it to work, the rig's pipe, down to the wellhead, has to be completely disconnected.

Colorado Congresswoman Dianne DeGette asked Jack Moore about it. He's the president of the company that made that blowout preventer.

Representative DIANNE DEGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): Is that correct, Mr. Moore?

Mr. JACK MOORE: That is correct. The dead-man system is really designed to function when the riser parts from the wellhead.

OVERBY: It also turns out the well passed only one of two critical tests. Five hours before the blowout, the other test for negative pressure produced iffy results, calling into question Halliburton's cement work to seal the well.

Timothy Probert, the safety officer for Halliburton, had this exchange with Republican Congressman Michael Burgess of Texas...

Mr. TIMOTHY PROBERT (Safety Officer, Halliburton): Had there not been a successful negative test, then that would clearly be a situation which would be problematic for the well, since you're reducing the hydrostatic pressure on the well.

Representative MICHAEL BURGESS (Republican, Texas): But the test wasn't successful.

Mr. PROBERT: I have no knowledge of that.

OVERBY: And then there's the matter of the cleanup. When BP applied to go drilling in this part of the Gulf, the company said it was prepared to handle an oil spill far larger than this one. This past week, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland raised the question with Lamar McKay, the American head of BP.

Senator BEN CARDIN (Democrat, Maryland): Was it accurate to portray that the proven equipment would prevent this type of an environmental disaster? Was that accurate?

Mr. LAMAR MCKAY (BP): I believe, given the data at the time, it was accurate.

OVERBY: Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman of California, one of the lead investigators, says there will be more hearings.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): This was not an act of nature. This was a manmade disaster and we've got to find out how it happened. And I thought our hearing made a lot of progress getting to that result.

OVERBY: And early next week, there will be lots of hearings as administration officials take their turn in front of the cameras on Capitol Hill.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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