Gulf oil spill: Gusher resumes full force

The gusher in the Gulf of Mexico returned to full force on Thursday after BP was forced to remove a cap that had been containing some of the oil spewing out of its ruptured wellhead.

Initial reports suggested a robot vehicle had accidently bumped into the “top hat” device and damaged one of the vents. Its failure represented a major setback to efforts to contain the spill, with underwater video showing crude and gas billowing from the ocean floor unchecked for the first time in three weeks.

Only minutes earlier, Ken Salazar, the US interior secretary, had told a congressional committee the top hat device had achieved a new milestone, collecting 27 900 barrels (4,4-million litres) of oil in the previous 24 hours—still less than half the oil fouling the Gulf each day.

Salazar was appearing before the committee to introduce the Obama administration’s new head of offshore drilling regulation, Michael Bromwich, and announce a new “zero tolerance” regime for corrupt or lax government safety inspectors.

Thad Allen, the coast guard admiral who is leading the administration’s response to the spill, told reporters that workers had detected a possible gas leak in the line that was running warm water into the collection device. The waterline is used to prevent the build-up of hydrate crystals around the collection device.

Initial reports also suggested that the robot vehicle may have inadvertently shut down one of the vents on the collection device, raising the pressure within and forcing gas into the warm waterline.

Allen said workers would have to determine whether the device was compromised by the formation of crystals.
If so, workers may have to run a new pipe before they can begin collecting oil again.

He added that two clean-up workers had been killed, but gave no further details.

The removal of the top hat underlined the enormous challenges of containing America’s biggest environmental disaster, just as the Obama administration was hoping to persuade the public it was adopting new safety protocols that would ensure such a spill never happened again.

In his public debut, Bromwich, the new head of a reconfigured agency overseeing offshore oil and gas industry, told the Senate appropriations subcommittee he was launching an investigative unit to root out corrupt government regulators. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is to replace the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which has been accused of being in the pocket of the oil industry.

Bromwich promised that would change under the new agency, which would see the launch of a FBI-style team of investigators who would conduct internal investigations of the associations between government regulators and industry.

“There will be little tolerance for corruption and cosiness,” he said. “There will be zero tolerance for whatever was tolerated in the past.”

The former prosecutor said his team would encourage whistleblowers and would act quickly to root out corruption or complacency among agency officials or the companies that were supposed to regulate.

Even before the Deepwater Horizon rig went down, the MMS was notorious for cocaine-fuelled sex romps between government officials and oil industry executives. In the Gulf, government inspectors were plied with free football tickets or offered jobs by the very same companies they were supposed to monitor.

But Salazar also argued that the MMS had never had the resources it needed to manage Big Oil. He told senators he needs more inspectors to have proper oversight of offshore drilling safety. At present, the agency has 62 inspectors who are supposed to visit 4 000 production wells.

Salazar, in his initial budget request, asked for six more inspectors. Today, he was urging senators to help fund an expanded inspection regime of 600 staff.

Senators delivered a withering review of the agency’s performance, saying it had failed to vet BP’s safety procedures, intervene in the dispute between BP and Transocean engineers on board the doomed Deepwater Horizon rig on whether to stop drilling, or even have an adequate inspection programme.

“The last 64 days have clearly demonstrated the technology in use for offshore drilling does not have the capacity to stop oil spills,” Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the appropriations subcommittee, said.

“There was a shameful culture of corruption,” said Bryan Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota.

Salazar also defended the administration’s decision to order a six-month halt to deepwater drilling. A judge in New Orleans overturned the ban yesterday. Salazar said the administration would go back to court to seek a more limited ban.

“The moratorium that we put into place was the right thing to do,” he said. -

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