WASHINGTON (CN) – Lawmakers said in a hearing Wednesday that the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may be due to a hydraulic leak in a safety device on board the Deepwater Horizon that was designed to seal the well in case of an explosion. The rig exploded April 20, killing 11 crewmembers.
A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee found “at least four significant problems” with a blowout preventer, the most crucial of which was a hydraulic leak that may have rendered the safety device useless in the explosion. Because of the leak, the device may not have had enough power to cut through the drill pipe and seal the well.
“The blowout preventer used by the Deepwater Horizon rig failed to stop the flow of gas and oil, the rig exploded, and an enormous oil spill is now threatening the Gulf Coast,” said subcommittee chair Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.
Appearing Wednesday before the subcommittee were Lamar McKay, president of BP America, the lease owner; Steve Newman, president of Transocean, the drilling contractor; and Timothy Probert, chief environmental officer of Halliburton, which was performing final cementing on the well.
The leak was found in the hydraulic system that powers shear rams – the devices that are supposed to cut the drill pipe and seal the well in case of a sudden loss of pressure. When companies sent remote operating vehicles to investigate the well after the accident, robots found the rams inoperational and discovered a leak from a loose fitting.
Among the other problems, the subcommittee found that the blowout preventer, even if operational, is not able to cut through thick joints on the drillpipe, which make up one-tenth of the total pipe.
“If the shear rams cannot cut through the joints, that would mean that this so-called failsafe device would succeed in cutting the drillpipe only 90 percent of the time,” Stupak said. “How can a device that has 260 failure modes be considered failsafe?” Stupak asked.
The committee also found that emergency controls on the blowout preventer may have failed because the explosion cut off emergency contact to the device or because the batteries to an emergency switch were dead.
The hearing was held on the same day the White House proposed a new bill that would bump up BP’s liability for the spill, requiring it to pay more to businesses and families affected by the disaster. Currently, BP would only be liable to pay up to $75 million unless it was found to be grossly negligent.
The bill also would apply $118 million toward spill recovery and reform efforts, including unemployment benefits for fisherman forced out of work and new inspection requirements for offshore wells.