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Gulf oil spill: BP safety record blasted by House panel

May 19, 2010 |  9:11 am

Spillstreaks

The safety records of oil giant BP and the government agency charged with overseeing offshore drilling drew sharp criticism at a Wednesday morning House hearing on the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

"Many of the elements of this tragedy are familiar to the committee," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. With BP America President Lamar McKay sitting in front of the panel, Oberstar assailed BP's "sorry record" on safety, adding that the well blowout 48 miles off the Louisiana coast was the latest in a spate of BP safety lapses.

Those include a deadly refinery blast in Texas and "the worst spill in the history of oil development on Alaska's north slope," incidents that have "cast doubt on whether the company has the commitment to the practice and the culture of safety necessary to protect the public," Oberstar said.

Almost a month has passed since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which killed 11 people, Oberstar noted. "BP has harnessed impressive scientific and technological experience to drill at great depths in the sea, and you have to wonder why they hadn't harnessed similar science and technology to anticipate failure, to install redundancy to prevent failure, and practices to clean up after an oil spill."

A ruptured riser pipe once connecting the well to the drill rig is gushing an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil per day, although some scientists believe the amount to be orders of magnitude higher. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a hearing Tuesday that a siphon pipe BP has inserted into the riser is drawing off as much as 40% of the oil.

Oberstar also took to task the Minerals Management Service, an agency under Salazar's authority, citing a "disturbing lack of dedication to safety, excessive reliance on the industry to police itself."

"Minerals Management Service has fallen way short of the commitment needed for effective oversight of offshore drilling," he said. The service, he said, failed to regulate blowout preventers, "a critical part of the BP plan to contain or to prevent a spill."  

Engineers worked for weeks to try to get that massive apparatus above the well head to function as it should: to sever and seal the well pipe. They have been unsuccessful, and soon may resort to plugging up the blowout preventer or pumping drilling mud into it to push back against the force of the gushing petroleum.

Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, the panel’s top Republican, said that the lax oversight lies at the feet of the Obama administration. "I call this the Obama oil spill timeline," Mica said.

Holding up a newspaper headline, "Salazar Says Regulatory Oversight of Industry is Lax," Mica said, "I don't know what planet he's on, but we've had these warnings for some time."

Oberstar called it "inflammatory to call it the Obama oil spill – and wrong," noting that approvals were given by career bureaucrats.

The Obama administration has temporarily halted any new applications to drill in the Gulf.

About 20,000 people and 900 vessels are responding to the spill, and 1.9 million feet of booms, about 360 miles, have been deployed to try to protect the coastline, McKay told the committee.  Plans call for injecting mud and cement into the leaking pipe to plug it. The technique has been used before but not at this depth, McKay said. 

While the congressional hearings have involved talk about arcane technical matters, ocean currents and political posturing, Rep. Nick Rahall II (D-W.Va.) took time to read the names of the 11 workers killed in the rig explosion.

The hearings come as Congress considers legislation, including setting new environmental and safety rules for offshore drilling and increasing the industry’s liability for spills.

-- Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: Streaks of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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