Congress grilled oil industry executives about the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill for the second straight day Wednesday, as a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee probed whether their companies ignored key warning signs of the disaster.
Subcommittee members hammered the chief officers of British Petroleum, Transocean, Halliburton, and Cameron for allegedly failing to act on a series of technical and mechanical problems that led to the explosion and ensuing spill at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20. The investigation came on the same day that President Barack Obama sent Congress legislation that would speed up assistance to those affected by the spill and improve the oil spill liability system.
"If the largest oil and oil-services companies had been more careful, 11 lives might have been saved and our coastlines protected," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
In particular, the panel quizzed the executives about the failure of one of the rig's blow-out preventers (BOP), described as a fail-safe mechanism. Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said that a 2001 document from Transocean, the owner of the rig, showed the BOP to be severely flawed.
"How can a device that has 260 failure modes be considered fail-safe?" Stupak asked.
The executives could not agree on who was responsible for the faulty device. Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America, which leased the rig, said the failure was Transocean's responsibility. Steven Newman, the CEO of Transocean, responded:
"We have no reason to believe that they [the rig's BOPs] were not operational. They were jointly tested by BP and Transocean personnel . . . on April 10 and 17 and found to be functional."
Confusion also emerged about modifications to the rig's defective BOP that may have contributed to its malfunction. Newman said the modifications were requested and paid for by BP in 2005, but McKay said subsequent examination of the BOP by BP found that Transocean had also made unsolicited modifications.
Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) scolded McKay for BP's response to the disaster.
"Why are you having so much trouble responding to this?" he asked.
McKay responded that mechanical difficulties complicated efforts to drill relief wells that would contain the spill.
The BP America head also pledged his company would pay all "legitimate claims" related to the spill and said it had also deployed more than a million feet of floating vinyl curtains called boom to contain the spill.
However, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) told Politics Daily that BP will need to provide even more aid to Gulf Coast communities affected by the disaster. "We're out here every day, trying to get more help for these people," he said. "We need more boom."
Aside from inquiries into the causes of the spill, discussion among committee members also turned to the greater economic implications of the disaster.
While Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said the spill signaled the perils of "drill, baby, drill" boosterism by the oil industry, most Republicans on the committee defended off-shore drilling as an essential path to energy independence.
"We must continue to drill and avoid knee-jerk reactions to this accident," countered Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.).
McKay estimated that BP's efforts to fully stop the leak could take up to three months. He added he did not know how far the spill could reach, but did not rule out the possibility of it reaching the Florida coast.