BP official: Industry, government not prepared for oil spill

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Under grilling by a presidential commission on the oil spill, BP's top official for oil production said he couldn't explain why the oil industry didn't develop technologies to shut down a deepwater oil spill.

"It's difficult for me to fully understand that," said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer for exploration and production. He acknowledged that the oil industry hadn't made "a tremendous amount of investment" in this technology in the past 20 years and added: "I actually believe, though, going forward that it's critical that it occur."

The oil spill commission must report to President Barack Obama in January about what caused the Deepwater Horizon rig to explode in April and set off the worst oil spill ever and how to prevent another disaster in the oil rigs off America's continental shelf. Among other things, it could demand that government labs help develop new ways of dealing with deepwater disasters and that the oil industry pay for this work.

Commission co-chairman Bob Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida, asked Suttles if BP's other deepwater rigs were any better prepared for a major spill than they were on April 19, the day before the explosion.

Suttles responded that BP now has the cap it developed that temporarily shut off the well, it accumulated almost 5 million feet of boom and it developed better beach cleaning techniques.

The Department of Interior plans to take a fresh look at all the industry's spill response plans, said Deputy Secretary David Hayes. The key question is whether they can execute the plans they say they have, he said.

Since the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, there's been "staleness" in government review and company planning for spills, Hayes said. Containment hadn't been addressed in a significant way, he said.

It will be expensive to make some of the improvements being discussed, said William Reilly, a Republican and former Environmental Protection Agency head and the other co-chairman of the commission. Only the government can insist the oil industry make it a priority, he told reporters during a break.

Graham, speaking at the same news conference, said that there'd been too much government deference to the oil industry.

During the testimony, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientist Richard Camilli told how he'd wanted to take samples from the containment cap as part of his work in estimating the flow, but BP denied access for three weeks until Marcia McNutt, the head of the U.S. Geological Survey and the director of a team of experts calculating the flow, stepped in and got access for him.

"There's a tendency to forget the fact that this property out in the Gulf of Mexico where all this is happening belongs to all of us," Graham said. The government for the past 25 years has not held the oil industry to the requirements in its leases, he said.

"We have to start acting like the landlord . . . We need to be sure that the lease is written for the benefit of the public, particularly when it involves a situation where there's been an error that's afflicting damage on the people's property," Graham said.

During the commission hearing, Graham asked Suttles whether the government's low estimate of the size of the spill was a factor in the failure of early efforts to contain it.

Suttles said he didn't know.

"What was not fully envisaged was that the well would continue to flow for weeks on end at significant rates," he said.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who oversaw the government's response to the spill, again repeated his assertion that the government threw everything it had at the spill, and that better flow estimates wouldn't have changed that.

NOAA for weeks stuck to a 5,000 barrels a day estimate made from surface observations, even after it was clear that much of the oil was staying below the surface. Scientists working on McNutt's team determined later in the summer that the estimate was as much as 60,000 barrels a day, or a total of 4.1 million barrels.

Reilly told reporters he would have liked to have asked Allen more about what he meant. "It's not entirely clear to me how it could be that the flow rate didn't affect the response," he said.

Bill Lehr, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration, testified that NOAA had models to estimate a smaller spill, but didn't have the capability to estimate one as complex and huge as the BP blowout, and so it was necessary to get outside experts.

He said he had submitted a proposal to get better information about how oil behaves and breaks down. The agency has lacked the resources to do it, he said.

Reilly said he found it disturbing that NOAA didn't have a plan yet on how oil flow would be analyzed in the future. "I thought that would have received a higher priority and would be under way at this time, frankly," he said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in May halted deepwater drilling for six months to give time for an inspection and consideration of safety requirements.

Reilly also told reporters that he expected the Department of Interior's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling would be lifted before its end date, Nov. 30.

Michael Bromwich, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service, said during the hearings that there probably would be "very few" rigs operating the first month after the moratorium is lifted. He said he expects to turn in his report to Salazar this week, ahead of schedule, and that new rules will be proposed that add new requirements.

It will take time for companies to meet the new rules, and then his office must certify them, he said.

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