Deepwater Horizon glitches before explosion in Gulf of Mexico get House panel’s attention

The bottom of the damaged and leaking marine riser sits atop the failed blowout preventer on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. The main tube of the riser guides the drill pipe into the well, while the other pipes carry hydraulic fluid to operate the blowout preventer. ( Photo: BP)

New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 12, 2010

By Jonathan Tilove

The failed blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had a hydraulic leak and a dead battery in one of its control pods, and testing in the hours before an April 20 explosion revealed that pressure in the well was dangerously out of whack, a House committee investigating the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico said Wednesday.

“The more I learn about this accident, the more concerned I become,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who has cast the explosion and the ongoing oil spill that followed as a cautionary tale of America’s dependence on oil and what he characterized as “dangerous” deepwater drilling in particular.

In recent days, the Energy Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has been combing through documents provided by BP, the oil giant that had been on the verge of announcing a huge find in the deep waters 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, and Transocean Limited, the contractor whose offshore rig blew up three weeks ago, killing 11 workers and opening an undersea gusher that is releasing about 5,000 barrels of crude a day into the Gulf.

The documents and Wednesday’s six-hour hearing at which the committee questioned BP and Transocean executives, raised more questions than it answered, but focused on likely areas of inquiry as the investigation proceeds on multiple fronts.

Much of the attention is focused on the blowout preventer, or BOP, the massive $15 million piece of equipment that is supposed to be the fail-safe mechanism to keep a well from blowing.

But, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the subcommittee chairman, said that documents provided by BP indicated that “the blowout preventer apparently had a significant leak. This leak was found in the hydraulic system that provides emergency power to the shear rams, which are the devices that are supposed to cut the drill pipe and seal the well.”

Stupak said that Cameron International, which manufactured the BOP, did not believe the leak was a result of the blowout itself because “every other fitting in the system was tight.” Cameron President Jack Moore also testified Wednesday.

Further complicating matters, Stupak said that dead man’s switch, which is designed to trigger the BOP if all else fails, is connected to two separate control pods in the BOP, but relies on battery power to make that connection.

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