BP, subcontractors: Spill is the other guy's fault

oil_spill_swear.gi.top.jpgExecutives of BP America, Transocean and Halliburton get sworn in to testify at a Senate Energy hearing on the Gulf oil spill. By Steve Hargreaves, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The three oil companies primarily involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill blamed each other Tuesday for the accident last month that left 11 workers dead and oil still spewing into the Gulf.

At Congressional hearings, BP (BP), the well's owner and lead operator of the project, sought to turn attention to Transocean, which had a contract to drill the well for BP using its Deepwater Horizon drill rig.

Oil threatens Gulf businesses
With the Gulf oil slick spreading, these 5 business owners are among the thousands fearing for their livelihood.

"Transocean, as owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, had responsibility for the safety of drilling operations," Lamar McKay, chairman and president of BP America, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the morning.

In particular, McKay drew attention to the valve that was supposed to shut off the well in case of an accident. The valve, known as a blowout preventer (BOP), is owned by Transocean.

"Clearly, the BOP remains a critical piece of equipment throughout all operations to ensure well control," said McKay.

In written testimony before the hearing, Transocean (RIG) said the blowout preventer performed fine in tests just a week before the accident.

While it's still unclear why the blowout preventer did not work, Transocean chief executive Steven Newman said the preventer is not the ultimate cause of the accident. He says that there must have been a failure of the well's cementing or the casing that holds the wells in place.

Either way, Transocean said it's the responsibility of the well's owner to set all specifications for the drilling process.

"All offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator ... in this case, BP," Newman said.

Newman took a slightly more conciliatory tone during his testimony, but still sought to shift the focus away from the blowout preventer and to the well itself.

"Here was a sudden, catastrophic failure of the cement, the casing, or both," he said. "Without a failure of one of those elements, the explosion could not have occurred."

The well's cementing was done by Halliburton (HAL, Fortune 500). But Halliburton's chief safety and environmental officer, Tim Probert, said responsibility lay with either Transocean or BP.

"The casing shoe was cemented some 20 hours prior to the tragic incident," said Probert. "Had the BOP functioned as expected, this catastrophe may well not have occurred."

During the cementing of the well, Halliburton simply followed BP's instructions, he said.

Emergency shut off

Senators were not impressed with the blame game.

"Shifting the blame does not get us very far," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. "And it does not change America's need for energy."

Several senators focused on the blowout preventer, and why it didn't work.

"Should we go forward with deep-water drilling when we know these blow out preventers may not function?" asked Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., whose state has been severely affected by the spill.

Elmer Danenberger, former head of the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that regulates offshore drilling, said the blowout preventers usually work. But in some cases, such as thick sections where two joints come together, the preventers won't cut through the pipe, which is necessary to pinch it shut and stop leaks.

Senators wanted to know why there weren't more shears on the blowout preventer in case one shear hit a thick spot on the pipe. They also asked why other backup systems were not in place.

"That was going to be in place, but apparently it never happened," Danenberger answered.

It has been speculated that additional shears might make the devices too heavy for older drill rigs to carry.

Minerals Management Service has come under fire as the story of the spill has has unfolded. The agency has to balance competing priorities: slowing drilling to ensure safety while also generating royalties for the U.S. government.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced plans to split the agency in two to avoid conflicting interests.

MMS has also been accused of being too close to the oil industry -- especially after news broke last year that some of its members were partying with and receiving gifts from oil executives.

"You've all seen the records of the sex parties, the pot parties," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told a Senate Environment and Public Works panel in the afternoon. "MMS clearly needs to get cleaned up."

Who pays?

Under federal law, BP, as the lead project operator, is responsible for all clean-up costs associated with the spill. On Monday, BP said it has spent $350 million so far.

But damages caused by closure of fishing grounds, shipping lanes and tourist spots could exceed the cleanup costs, and it's unclear which party will pay those or how much they'll add up to. Under current law, BP may only be liable for the first $75 million of claims that are expected to run into the billions.

BP has said it will pay all "legitimate claims" when it comes to compensating people for economic loss. At Tuesday's hearing, BP's McKay said the company expects to spend more than $75 million on compensating people for the spill.

But under questioning from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the extent of the commitment wasn't clear.

"So you'll pay for lost fishing opportunities?," asked Cantwell.

"All legitimate claims," responded McKay.

"And lost tourism revenue?," asked the senator.

"All legitimate claims," McKay answered again.

"And how about lost tax revenues to towns and parishes?," asked Cantwell.

"Question mark," said McKay.

"And damages sustained to Louisiana's brand?"

"I really don't know," said McKay.

While the subcontractors are thought to have some legal indemnification from BP and the federal government, lawyers say they could still be open to lawsuits from fisherman and others affected by the spill.

Ultimately, experts have said total costs could range from $2 billion to $14 billion or higher, depending on when the leaking well is closed and where the oil washes ashore. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 17,122.01 15.31 0.09%
Nasdaq 4,569.62 -1.02 -0.02%
S&P 500 2,000.12 0.10 0.00%
Treasuries 2.36 -0.03 -1.25%
Data as of 9:42pm ET
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 16.20 -0.13 -0.80%
Apple Inc 102.13 1.24 1.23%
Facebook Inc 74.63 -1.33 -1.75%
Yahoo! Inc 38.18 0.39 1.03%
Pfizer Inc 29.49 0.28 0.96%
Data as of 4:02pm ET

Sections

Companies like Apple, GE, and Microsoft that do business abroad can delay paying U.S. taxes on the billions of dollars they keep offshore -- indefinitely. More

Former Fed chief Ben Bernanke believes the 2008 financial crisis was the worst in global history, topping even the Great Depression. More

Tech fans are already excited about the launch of Apple's iPhone 6 next month. There's now a report suggesting that the iWatch could be coming too. Wall Street is pleased. More

Utah State professor Michael Glauser cycled 4,000 miles this summer, visiting 100 entrepreneurs across the country. Here's a snapshot of how they grew their businesses. More

Five CNNMoney readers share stories about saving that you can learn from: What they would do differently if they had another chance. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.