msnbc.com news services
updated 7/31/2010 6:00:50 PM ET 2010-07-31T22:00:50

On shore, BP, Halliburton and Transocean are engaging in a billion-dollar blame game over the blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. At sea, they're depending on each other to finally plug up the environmental disaster.

Workers say the companies' adversarial relationship before Congress, in public statements and maybe one day in the courts isn't a distraction at the site of the April 20 rig explosion, where Transocean equipment rented by BP is drilling relief wells that Halliburton will pump cement through to permanently choke the oil well.

"Simply, we are all too professional to allow disagreements between BP and any other organization to affect our behaviors," Ryan Urik, a BP well safety adviser working on the Development Driller II, which is drilling a backup relief well, said in an e-mail last week.

But at least one expert said government probes and potential for lawsuits can't help but chill communication between the companies.

Urik's rig was in a holding pattern Saturday, awaiting progress by its sister rig, the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well and ran into a minor snag while preparing for a procedure known as a static kill that will make it easier to stop the gusher for good.

The DDIII is clearing out debris that fell in the bottom of the relief well when crews had to evacuate the site last week because of Tropical Storm Bonnie.

Once the debris is cleared, engineers plan to start as early as Monday on the static kill, which involves pumping mud and possibly cement into the blown-out well through the temporary cap. If it works, it will take less time to complete another procedure known as a bottom kill, the last step to permanently sealing the well by pumping mud and then cement in from the bottom, which could happen by mid- to late August.

Workers know all about the clashes among their respective employers, "but the crews have done an excellent job of focusing on getting these relief wells finished safely," Dennis Barber, a Transocean senior toolpusher aboard the DDII, said last week in an e-mail from the rig.

The roles of the three companies in the relief kill effort are much the same as they were on the Deepwater Horizon, the exploratory rig that blew up soon after a temporary cement cap was placed on its well, killing 11 workers. The conflicts began almost as soon as oil started flowing.

"Transocean's blowout preventer failed to operate," BP executive Lamar McKay said in Senate testimony in May, referring to the massive safety device atop the well that was supposed to bottle up the oil in an emergency.

Transocean CEO Steven Newman shifted blame in the same hearing, saying "all offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator, in this case BP." He also noted that Halliburton was responsible for encasing the well in cement, while Halliburton executive Tim Probert said his company's work was completed 20 hours before the rig went up in flames.

President Obama called the finger-pointing testimony a "ridiculous spectacle."

The Justice Department has opened civil and criminal investigations into the spill. Attorney General Eric Holder has indicated that BP isn't the only company that could be held liable.

Kenneth Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, said the investigations may have stifled communications between the government and companies — and between the companies themselves.

"The problem is you've chilled communications with the very people you need to solve the problem," he said. "Once the Justice Department got involved, the lawyers were basically immediately in charge of the show."

BP is trying to move forward from the disaster that sent anywhere from 94 million to 184 million gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf, announcing once the cap was finally in place that its vilified chief executive, Tony Hayward, will be leaving in October.

He will be replaced by American Bob Dudley, who told reporters in Biloxi, Miss., on Friday that it's "not too soon for a scaleback" in the cleanup, and in areas where there is no oil, "you probably don't need to see people in hazmat suits on the beach."

State waters closed by the spill have slowly reopened to fishing, most recently in Florida, where regulators on Saturday reopened a 23-mile area off of Escambia County to harvest saltwater fish. The area was closed June 14 and remains closed to the shrimp and crab harvesting pending additional testing. Oysters, clams and mussels were never included in the closure.

Relatively little oil remains on the surface of the Gulf, leaving less for thousands of oil skimmers to do, though Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser on Saturday offered to prove to Dudley that there's still plenty of oil off the coast of Louisiana.

"Let me take him water-skiing out here and see if he comes up black," Nungesser said as he took a small group of reporters on a boat tour of an inlet at St. Mary's Point, about an hour south of New Orleans. Fresh globs of thick oil saturated the marshes and brownish tar balls were visible in the water.

Even in areas where no oil was visible on the surface, workers were pulling up heavily stained boom that had been placed there in recent days.

Hundreds of lawsuits already have been filed in the aftermath of the explosion and spill. Rig workers are suing their employers. Idled fishermen, coastal property owners and tourism-dependent businesses are suing the companies. Environmental lawyers are suing government regulators.

So far, the companies haven't sued each other. Christopher Ruppel, an energy expert and managing director of capital markets for the Execution Noble investment banking group, said the companies are probably waiting to get a full tally for the cleanup costs and a better read on the government probes.

Meanwhile, he added, the companies are acting like "porcupines working together."

"Everyone is going to move very slowly and carefully," he said.

German magazine Wirtschaftswoche reported on Saturday that BP Plc is seeking to sell its German petrol station chain Aral for around $2.6 billion.

BP last week unveiled plans to sell $30 billion of assets — mainly upstream oil and gas fields —over the next 18 months to cover costs related to the spill, the worst in U.S. history.

Wirtschaftswoche said France's Total, Russia's Rosneft, and Avia, an independent chain of filling stations, were among the possible buyers.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: BP to attempt ‘static kill’

  1. Transcript of: BP to attempt ‘static kill’

    AMY ROBACH, co-host: Now to the oil spill in the gulf, where efforts to plug the busted well have hit yet another setback. NBC chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson is live in Venice , Louisiana , with the latest on all of that. Anne , good morning.

    ANNE THOMPSON reporting: Good morning, Amy . The problem is some debris that they found in the relief well after Tropical Storm Bonnie passed over, and so crews have been cleaning out that debris and they hope by perhaps Monday night or Tuesday to start the static kill. It's the first in a two-step process to permanently end the well that has harmed so much of the gulf. As crews at the leak site prepare to run the final section of pipe in the relief well, Bob Dudley , BP 's soon-to-be CEO, tries to reassure a suspicious Gulf Coast .

    Mr. BOB DUDLEY: We've had some good news offshore -- you'll know that -- but that doesn't mean we're done. We'll be here for years.

    THOMPSON: At his side, former FEMA director James Lee Witt , who will assist BP in the long-term recovery. But Dudley said with no more oil going into the gulf, it is not too early to scale back the massive cleanup.

    Mr. DUDLEY: Where there's no oil on the beaches, you probably don't need people walking up and down with hazmat suits. So you'll see that kind of a pullback. But commitment, absolutely no pullback.

    THOMPSON: Portions of Louisiana 's commercial fishing waters are reopened east of the Mississippi River , including some shrimp areas. Patrick Hugh hoped he could get back to work, but the waters he trawls are still closed. Readying his nets, Hugh worries that when he can fish again, the delicacies he catches will never be thought of in the same way and never bring a good price.

    Mr. PATRICK HUGH: People's not going to want to eat them. I -- you know, I would eat it -- you know, if they say it's safe, I would eat it, but a lot of people won't, you know. I mean, it's going to put a dent in us.

    THOMPSON: Trust it at the heart of rebuilding demand for Louisiana seafood and restoring the Gulf Coast , as the government's man in charge made clear in Florida .

    Admiral THAD ALLEN: We should not be writing any obituary for this event. Until the well is completely sealed, until we have no more oil on the surface of the water, until we understand where all the oil has gone to, until the beaches are clean, until the federal, state and local officials agree that the beaches are clean, we're still engaged in the fight and we need to stay engaged.

    THOMPSON: Now, there is some good news this morning for Florida . The government says, because there is no evidence that the oil has gotten into the loop current and because the oil is degrading, they don't expect the oil to have any impact on southern Florida , the Florida Keys , or the Miami-Fort

Photos: Month 4

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  1. The Blue Dolphin, left, and the HOS Centerline, the ships supplying the mud for the static kill operation on the Helix Q4000, are seen delivering mud through hoses at the site of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana, on Aug. 3, 2010. In the background is the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Eddie Forsythe and Don Rorabough dump a box of blue crabs onto a sorting table at B.K. Seafood in Yscloskey, La., on Aug. 3, 2010. The crabs were caught by fisherman Garet Mones. Commercial and recreational fishing has resumed, with some restrictions in areas that were closed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Chuck Cook / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sea turtle hatchlings that emerged from eggs gathered on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida are released at Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore near Titusville, Fla., on Aug. 2, 2010. The sea turtles were born at a Kennedy Space Center incubation site, where thousands of eggs collected from Florida and Alabama beaches along the Gulf of Mexico have been sent. (Craig Rubadoux / Florida Today via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A crab, covered with oil, walks along an oil absorbent boom near roso-cane reeds at the South Pass of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana on Aug. 1, 2010. BP is testing the well to see if it can withstand a "static kill" which would close the well permanently. (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A boat motors through a sunset oil sheen off East Grand Terre Island, where the Gulf of Mexico meets Barataria Bay on the La. coast, on the evening of July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Oil approaches a line of barges and boom positioned to protect East Grand Terre Island, partially seen at top right, on July 31. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is seen near an unprotected island in the Gulf of Mexico near Timbalier Bay, off the coast of Louisiana on Wednesday, July 28. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Greenpeace activists stand outside a BP gas station in London, England, on July 27 after they put up a fence to cut off access. Several dozen BP stations in London were temporarily shut down to protest the Gulf spill. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. James Wilson sells T-shirts to those arriving in Grand Isle, La., for the music festival Island Aid 2010 on July 24. (Dave Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activists covered in food coloring made to look like oil protest BP's Gulf oil spill in Mexico City on July 22. The sign at far left reads in Spanish "Petroleum kills animals." (Alexandre Meneghini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People in Lafayette, La., wear "Keep Drilling" tee shirts at the "Rally for Economic Survival" opposing the federal ban on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, July 21. Supporters at the rally want President Obama to lift the moratorium immediately to protect Louisiana's jobs and economy. (Ann Heisenfelt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A flock of white ibis lift off from marsh grass on Dry Bread Island in St. Bernard Parish, La., July 21. Crews found about 130 dead birds and 15 live birds affected by oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 19 in the eastern part of the parish behind the Chandeleur Islands. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the BP Oil Spill Victim Compensation Fund testifies during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on July 21 in Washington, D.C. The hearing was to examine the claim process for victims of the Gulf Coast oil spill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An American white pelican has its wings checked during a physical examination at Brookfield Zoo’s Animal Hospital by Michael Adkesson and Michael O’Neill on July 21. The bird, along with four other pelicans, was rescued from the Gulf Coast oil spill and will be placed on permanent exhibit at the zoo. (Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Native people of the Gwich'in Nation form a human banner on the banks of the Porcupine River near Ft. Yukon, Alaska July 21, in regard to the BP oil spill with a message to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development. The images include a Porcupine caribou antler and a threatened Yukon River Salmon. (Camila Roy / Spectral Q via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Above: Slideshow (15) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 4
  2. Image: Economic And Environmental Impact Of Gulf Oil Spill Deepens
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (64) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 3
  3. Image: Oil Spill In The Gulf
    Digitalglobe / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (81) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 2
  4. Image: Dispersed oil caught in the wake of a transport boat floats on the Gulf of Mexico
    Hans Deryk / Reuters
    Slideshow (53) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Month 1
  5. Image:
    Gerald Herbert / AP
    Slideshow (10) Oil spill disaster in the Gulf - Rig explosion
  6. Image:
    P.J. Hahn / AP
    Slideshow (11) Grim inventory of wildlife claimed by Gulf spill

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