Image: Lamar McKay, Steven Newman, Timothy Probert, Jack Moore
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
From left, Transocean President Steven Newman, BP America President Lamar McKay, Halliburton Global Business President Timothy Probert, Cameron President Jack Moore are sworn in for a House hearing on the Gulf oil spill Wednesday in Washington.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/12/2010 4:38:51 PM ET 2010-05-12T20:38:51

Bad wiring and a leak in what's supposed to be a "blowout preventer." Sealing problems that may have allowed a methane eruption. Even a dead battery, of all things.

New disclosures Wednesday at a House hearing revealed a complicated cascade of deepsea equipment failures and procedural problems in the oil rig explosion and massive spill that is still fouling the Gulf of Mexico.

The disclosures were described in internal corporate documents, marked confidential but provided to a House subcommittee by BP PLC, the well's operator, and by the manufacturer of the safety device. Congressional investigators released them.

A senior BP executive, Lamar McKay, cautioned lawmakers that "it's inappropriate to draw any conclusions before all the facts are known."

But the documents established the firmest evidence to date of the sequence of catastrophic events that led to the explosion and worsening spill, a series of failures more reminiscent of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger than the wreck of the Exxon Valdez.

Like the 1986 Challenger disaster, the investigation into the Gulf spill may well show that complex and seemingly failproof technical systems went wrong because of overlooked problems that interacted with each other in unexpected ways. In the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, a captain simply ran his ship onto a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, spilling some 11 millions gallons of oil.

The April 20 BP rig explosion killed 11 people. Since then, an estimated 4 million gallons of oil have spewed from the broken well pipe 5,000 feet under water 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, threatening sensitive ecological marshes and wetlands and the region's fishing industry.

Congressional investigators revealed Wednesday that a key safety system, known as the blowout preventer, had a hydraulic leak and a failed battery that probably prevented it from working as designed.

Pipe pressure tests a warning?
Moreover, said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., it appears there was confusion almost right up to the time of the explosion over the success of a process in which cement is injected into the well to temporarily close it in anticipation of future production.

BP documents and others also indicated conflicting pipe pressure tests should have warned those on the rig that poor pipe integrity may have been allowing explosive methane gas to leak into the well.

"Significant pressure discrepancies were observed in at least two of these tests, which were conducted just hours before the explosion," Waxman said at the hearing, citing documents his committee had received from BP.

Asked about the tests, Steven Newman, president of Transocean, which owned the drilling rig, and Lamar McKay, president of BP America, told the committee the pressure readings were worrisome.

They indicated "that there was something happening in the well bore that shouldn't be happening," said Newman. McKay said the issue "is critical in the investigation" into the cause of the accident.

'Four significant problems'
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said there were at least "four significant problems with the blowout preventer" — including evidence that it had a significant hydraulic leak and a dead battery that was supposed to activate a so-called "deadman" trigger.

"The safety of its entire operations rested on the performance of a leaking and apparently defective blowout preventer," Stupak added.

A 2001 report by Transocean indicated there can be as many as 260 failure possibilities in the equipment, which is supposed to be the final safeguard against a well blowout by clamping down and sealing a gushing oil well, said Stupak, chairman of the investigation's subcommittee of the House energy panel.

"How can a device that has 260 failure modes be considered fail-safe?" asked Stupak.

Stupak said when an underwater remote vehicle tried to activate the blowout preventer's devices designed to ram through the pipe and seal it, a loss of hydraulic pressure was discovered in the device's emergency power component.

When dye was injected "it showed a large leak coming from a loose fitting," said Stupak, citing BP documents. He said officials at Cameron, the company that made the preventer, had told the committee the leak was not believed to have been caused by the blowout because other fittings in the system were tight.

Stupak also questioned why the preventer had been modified.

Newman, the Transocean executive, said that, indeed, the preventer had been modified in 2005 at the request of BP and with approval of the Minerals Management Service.

Stupak said the committee had been told that one of the preventer's ram drivers had been changed so it could be used for routine testing and was no longer designed to activate in an emergency. He said after the spill BP "spent a day trying to use this ... useless test ram," which no longer was configured for emergency use.

Stupak also cited two other problems:

  • The blowout preventer, due to its design, was "not powerful enough to cut through joints in the drill pipe" in order to shut off any leak." The Cameron official "confirmed that it is not powerful enough to cut through the joints in the drillpipe. And he told us this was another possible explanation for the failure of the blowout preventer to seal the well."
  • The emergency controls on the blowout preventer may have failed. BP said those were "activated on the drill rig before the rig was evacuated. But the Cameron official said they doubted the signals ever reached the blowout preventer on the seabed. Cameron officials believed the explosion on the rig destroyed the communications link to the blowout preventer before the emergency sequence could be completed. In other words, the emergency controls may have failed because the explosion that caused the emergency also disabled communications to the blowout preventer."

The White House, meanwhile, on Wednesday sent Congress legislation seeking $188 million as a one-time discretionary spending — most of which will be covered by BP — so the federal government can speed assistance to those affected if the spill worsens.

The bill would also lift the $75 million cap on economic damages from oil spills and calls for a 1 cent-per-barrel increase in the tax that oil companies pay to an existing oil spill liability fund. Several lawmakers are already working on similar legislation to lift the cap.

A NBC News/Wall Street Journal opinion poll released Wednesday shows that, despite the spill, 60 percent say they support more drilling off U.S. coasts, and 53 percent believe that offshore drilling’s potential economic benefits outweigh its potential harm to the environment.

Wednesday's hearing followed two in the Senate on Tuesday where senators chastised the executives over attempts to shift blame to each other.

They were asked to explain a "cascade of failures" that led to the catastrophic explosion.

"If this is like other catastrophic failures of technological systems in modern history, whether it was the sinking of the Titanic, Three Mile Island, or the loss of the Challenger, we will likely discover that there was a cascade of failures and technical and human and regulatory errors," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

BP has cited the failure of the blowout preventer owned by Transocean, which in turn has raised questions about the cementing process conducted by Halliburton, a BP subcontractor.

At Senate hearings Tuesday and again before the House panel, Timothy Probert, an executive of Halliburton, said that its work had been completed except for the installation of a final cement cap and that it was done according to the BP drilling plan.

Senators sought assurances that BP will pay what could amount to billions of dollars in economic and environmental damages. McKay repeatedly said his company would pay for cleanup costs and all "legitimate" claims for damages, and not try to limit itself to an existing federal cap of $75 million on such damages.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Focus on blowout preventer

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