As 3 companies fight over oil-spill blame, they must work together to finally plug well

By Ray Henry, AP
Saturday, July 31, 2010

3 squabbling companies must cooperate to plug well

NEW ORLEANS — On shore, BP, Halliburton and Transocean are engaging in a billion-dollar blame game over the blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. At sea, they’re depending on each other to finally plug up the environmental disaster.

Workers say the companies’ adversarial relationship before Congress, in public statements and maybe one day in the courts isn’t a distraction at the site of the April 20 rig explosion, where Transocean equipment rented by BP is drilling relief wells that Halliburton will pump cement through to permanently choke the oil well.

“Simply, we are all too professional to allow disagreements between BP and any other organization to affect our behaviors,” Ryan Urik, a BP well safety adviser working on the Development Driller II, which is drilling a backup relief well, said in an e-mail last week.

But at least one expert said government probes and potential for lawsuits can’t help but chill communication between the companies.

Urik’s rig was in a holding pattern Saturday, awaiting progress by its sister rig, the Development Driller III, which is drilling the primary relief well and ran into a minor snag while preparing for a procedure known as a static kill that will make it easier to stop the gusher for good.

The DDIII is clearing out debris that fell in the bottom of the relief well when crews had to evacuate the site last week because of Tropical Storm Bonnie.

Once the debris is cleared, engineers plan to start as early as Monday on the static kill, which involves pumping mud and possibly cement into the blown-out well through the temporary cap. If it works, it will take less time to complete another procedure known as a bottom kill, the last step to permanently sealing the well by pumping mud and then cement in from the bottom, which could happen by mid- to late August.

Workers know all about the clashes among their respective employers, “but the crews have done an excellent job of focusing on getting these relief wells finished safely,” Dennis Barber, a Transocean senior toolpusher aboard the DDII, said last week in an e-mail from the rig.

The roles of the three companies in the relief kill effort are much the same as they were on the Deepwater Horizon, the exploratory rig that blew up soon after a temporary cement cap was placed on its well, killing 11 workers. The conflicts began almost as soon as oil started flowing.

“Transocean’s blowout preventer failed to operate,” BP executive Lamar McKay said in Senate testimony in May, referring to the massive safety device atop the well that was supposed to bottle up the oil in an emergency.

Transocean CEO Steven Newman shifted blame in the same hearing, saying “all offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator, in this case BP.” He also noted that Halliburton was responsible for encasing the well in cement, while Halliburton executive Tim Probert said his company’s work was completed 20 hours before the rig went up in flames.

President Obama called the finger-pointing testimony a “ridiculous spectacle.”

The Justice Department has opened civil and criminal investigations into the spill. Attorney General Eric Holder has indicated that BP isn’t the only company that could be held liable.

Kenneth Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, said the investigations may have stifled communications between the government and companies — and between the companies themselves.

“The problem is you’ve chilled communications with the very people you need to solve the problem,” he said. “Once the Justice Department got involved, the lawyers were basically immediately in charge of the show.”

BP is trying to move forward from the disaster that sent anywhere from 94 million to 184 million gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf, announcing once the cap was finally in place that its vilified chief executive, Tony Hayward, will be leaving in October.

He will be replaced by American Bob Dudley, who told reporters in Biloxi, Miss., on Friday that it’s “not too soon for a scaleback” in the cleanup, and in areas where there is no oil, “you probably don’t need to see people in hazmat suits on the beach.”

State waters closed by the spill have slowly reopened to fishing, most recently in Florida, where regulators on Saturday reopened a 23-mile area off of Escambia County to harvest saltwater fish. The area was closed June 14 and remains closed to the shrimp and crab harvesting pending additional testing. Oysters, clams and mussels were never included in the closure.

In Alabama, the Department of Public Health lifted all swimming advisories for the Gulf of Mexico.

Relatively little oil remains on the surface of the Gulf, leaving less for thousands of oil skimmers to do, though Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser on Saturday offered to prove to Dudley that there’s still plenty of oil off the coast of Louisiana.

“Let me take him water-skiing out here and see if he comes up black,” Nungesser said as he took a small group of reporters on a boat tour of an inlet at St. Mary’s Point, about an hour south of New Orleans. Fresh globs of thick oil saturated the marshes and brownish tar balls were visible in the water.

Even in areas where no oil was visible on the surface, workers were pulling up heavily stained boom that had been placed there in recent days.

Hundreds of lawsuits already have been filed in the aftermath of the explosion and spill. Rig workers are suing their employers. Idled fishermen, coastal property owners and tourism-dependent businesses are suing the companies. Environmental lawyers are suing government regulators.

So far, the companies haven’t sued each other. Christopher Ruppel, an energy expert and managing director of capital markets for the Execution Noble investment banking group, said the companies are probably waiting to get a full tally for the cleanup costs and a better read on the government probes.

Meanwhile, he added, the companies are acting like “porcupines working together.”

“Everyone is going to move very slowly and carefully,” he said.

Henry reported from Atlanta. Associated Press Writers Harry R. Weber in Port Sulphur, La., and Greg Bluestein in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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