* Brazil, Norway require rigs to have shut-off triggers
* US does not require shut-off triggers; some use them
* $500,000 cost may seem more affordable after this spill
By Tom Doggett and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON, May 3 U.S. lawmakers are focusing
on whether lax government regulation that did not require BP to
use a remote control "trigger" to shut an underwater pipe
exacerbated the spreading oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
A $500,000 acoustic trigger may have allowed workers
escaping from the burning rig by boat to send a remote signal
5,000 feet below the water's surface to close the valve and
stop the oil.
Instead, BP (BP.L) is using submersible robots, whose tiny
metal arms so far have been unable to move the lever that would
cut off the flow of crude.
BP's ruptured well is still spewing about 5,000 barrels a
day, nearly two weeks after its rig exploded. The massive spill
is bearing down on the rich fishing grounds and tourist beaches
of the Gulf Coast.
The Interior Department, which oversees offshore energy
exploration, does not require acoustic triggers in deepwater
Oil producing countries such as Norway and Brazil require
the triggers and some oil companies find the device so vital
that they voluntarily include it on equipment when exploring
for oil in the U.S. Gulf.
Some lawmakers say it's time for the United States to make
the remote shut-off valves mandatory.
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida on Monday asked
the Interior Department's inspector general to investigate
whether regulations covering back-up systems to cap underwater
wells were adequate. He also wants to know if energy companies
have lobbied to soften rules.
"I ask that you determine in your investigation the extent
to which the oil and natural gas industry exercised influence
in the agency's rule making process," Nelson said.
Meanwhile, the House Oversight and Investigations Reform
Committee is also investigating and wants to know why the
Interior Department has not mandated the shut-off switches.
REQUIRED IN BRAZIL AND NORWAY
Interior does not require the acoustic valves because they
have not been "fully proven or they haven't been deemed
reliable," a department spokesman said.
A report commissioned by the department Minerals Management
Service in 2003 said that remote acoustic systems were useful
when the primary shut-off pipe device has failed and are also
useful in depths greater than 10,000 feet.
However, the report said the acoustic system may not work
well if the underwater well has significant oil flow.
The report also said other problems can occur that would
prevent the remote trigger from working such as loud noises or
a mud cloud on the sea floor caused by an accident.
One petroleum geologist at a company operating in the Gulf
said an acoustic trigger would not have worked in this case
because the control box on the sea floor was probably broken.
"You could have had 20 of the acoustic activation devices
on 20 boats, circulating that rig," said the geologist, who did
not want to be identified. "It's probably because something is
broken in the control box that would activate it or there is
something in the way."
Meanwhile the oil industry may soon find the cost of
acoustic triggers more affordable, compared with the cost of
fighting an oil spill. Legislation was proposed in the Senate
to raise the limit on oil company liability for spill damages
from $75 million to $10 billion.
"There is no such thing as a 'Too Big to Spill' oil well,
which is why we need this economic protection in place," said
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. It is unclear
whether the legislation will be backed by Senate leadership.
Environmental lawyer Mike Papantonio, whose firm has filed
a class action suit on behalf of Gulf Coast fishermen, said the
triggers are a fail-safe protection against spills.
President Barack Obama has ordered U.S. Interior Secretary
Salazar to report in 30 days on the possible cause of the rig
explosion and what new regulations may be required.
Congress, however, will get an opportunity on May 11
Thursday to press the administration on what went wrong as
Salazar is scheduled to testify before the Senate Energy and
Natural Resources Committee, where the need for emergency
shut-off systems is expected to be discussed.
BP officials are also scheduled to brief House lawmakers
this Tuesday about the oil spill.
(Editing by Russell Blinch and David Gregorio)