Investigators meeting again over cause of Gulf rig explosion

METAIRIE, La. — Federal investigators will be looking for key information about pressure tests, decision making and BP’s safety culture when the next round of hearings begins today to determine the cause of the Gulf of Mexico rig explosion and oil spill.

The weeklong hearings near New Orleans will be the fifth series held by the joint U.S. Coast Guard-Bureau of Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement investigative panel.

Besides figuring out a cause, the panel is examining how safety and oversight can be improved.

At least one more series of hearings is expected before the panel members begin collaborating on their report.

The April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 workers and led to 206 million gallons of oil being released from BP PLC’s well a mile beneath the Gulf. The well gushed for three months before being capped in July and then permanently sealed in September. The British oil giant owned the well but was leasing the rig from owner Transocean Ltd.

Other federal investigations also are being conducted, and BP faces the potential for both civil and criminal fines and penalties.

Among the witnesses scheduled to testify this week are key workers for BP and Transocean, a Coast Guard official who will talk about the agency’s contingency plans and response to the spill, an expert on mobile offshore drilling units, an expert on maritime alarm systems and a deepwater well equipment expert.

Perhaps the most critical testimony is expected to come from two BP officials who were familiar with the company’s decision to use only six centralizers during the cementing of the well that blew out. Halliburton had recommended the use of 21 centralizers, which are devices that make sure the casing is running down the center of the well bore. If the casing is cemented off-center, there is a risk of an imperfect seal that could allow oil and gas to escape.

BP said in its internal report on the disaster that it released last month that its centralizer decision probably did not contribute to the cement’s failure. But federal investigators are still asking pointed questions.

On the witness list this week are BP well team leader John Guide and BP drilling engineering team leader Gregory Walz.

Documents released by Congress in June include a series of e-mail exchanges between Guide and Walz. In an April 16 e-mail, Walz said he had located an additional 15 centralizers in Houston and could fly them out to the Deepwater Horizon.

Suggesting he knew he would get some resistance, Walz added: “I do not like or want to disrupt your operations and I am a full believer that the rig needs only one team leader. I know the planning has been lagging behind the operations and I have to turn that around. I apologize if I have over step my bounds.”

Later the same day, Guide panned the idea in part because of the time it would take to install the extra centralizers. “I do not like this,” Guide wrote in an e-mail to Walz.

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