House panel blames rig device in BP oil spill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The device designed to cut the oil flow after BP’s oil rig exploded was faulty, the head of a congressional committee said on Wednesday as executives in the unfolding Gulf of Mexico disaster were lambasted over shoddy practices in the second day of hearings.

The chairman of a House of Representatives subcommittee said on Wednesday its investigators uncovered significant problems with the blowout preventer device, including the failure of several emergency backup switches to stop the flow.

Representative Bart Stupak, head of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said the rig’s underwater blowout preventer had a leak in its hydraulic system and the device was not powerful enough to cut through joints to seal the drill pipe.

He said the panel’s investigators also discovered the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon rig had been modified, which made it difficult to operate after the accident.

Stupak also said the device’s emergency backup controls may have failed because the explosion that destroyed the rig also disabled communications, preventing workers from sending signals to the underwater device.

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

Top executives from the companies involved in Gulf of Mexico disaster returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for the second day of hearings after marathon sessions yesterday.

Representative Joe Barton, the top Republican on the subcommittee’s full Energy and Commerce Committee, urged lawmakers not to restrict offshore drilling but still blasted the companies involved in the accident.

“We’ve had an accident. It is not an act of God,” Barton said. “It is something that could have been and should have been contained. The facts that we’ve uncovered ... show that there was in all probability shoddy maintenance.”

BP American President Lamar McKay told lawmakers that blowout preventers are intended to be fail-safe.

BP officials had told panel investigators that the modifications to the blowout preventer were so extensive that drawings provided by Transocean of the device after the accident no longer matched the structure on the ocean floor.

At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Transocean’s president, Steven Newman, said the modifications to the blowout preventer were made in 2005 at BP’s request.

Jack Moore, the president of Cameron International Corp. that built the blowout preventer in question in 2001, told the House panel that it was “far too early” to draw conclusions on what caused the accident. He said the company has not been able to the examine the blowout preventer.

Lawmakers also criticized BP’s lack of planning to deal with an oil spill in the Gulf’s deep waters.

“BP is largely making it up as they go,” Representative Ed Markey said. “They are engaging in a series of elaborate and risky science experiments.”

Markey joked about BP’s proposal to stuff the blowout preventer with golf balls, oil tires “and other junk” to block the spewing oil.

“When we heard the best minds were on the case, we expected MIT, not the PGA,” said Markey, referring to the professional golfing group. “We already have one hole in the ground and now their solution is to shoot a hole in one?”

Reporting by Tom Doggett; additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Russell Blinch and Bill Trott