COVINGTON, La. — Oil giant BP said its internal investigation of the unchecked Gulf oil spill is largely focused on work done by other companies as a new government report today showed workers at the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling accepted sports tickets, lunches and other gifts from oil and gas companies.
BP PLC said in a release that an initial investigation found multiple control mechanisms should have prevented the accident that started with an oil rig explosion April 20 off the coast of Louisiana that killed 11 workers.
BP, the largest oil and gas producer in the Gulf, listed seven areas of focus as it hunts for a cause. Four involve the blowout preventer, a massive piece of machinery that sits atop the wellhead and should have acted as a safety device of last resort but did not. That was manufactured by Cameron International Corp. and owned by Transocean LTD, which also owned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
The other three areas of focus for the investigation involve the cementing and casing of the wellhead, which was Halliburton Inc.’s responsibility.
In BP’s release, Chief Executive Tony Hayward stopped short of assigning responsibility. President Barack Obama has blasted executives from the companies for blaming each other during Congressional hearings this month.
“A number of companies are involved, including BP, and it is simply too early — and not up to us — to say who is at fault,” Hayward said.
Gene Beck, a petroleum engineer at Texas A&M at College Station who worked in the drilling industry for two decades, said the list of problems BP is investigating appears exhaustive. But he said the company also needs to look at decisions made by people on the rig.
“That needs to be investigated: Why did they do what they did?” Beck said. “They need to ask themselves that very, very serious question: ‘Why did we make these choices?’”
Guy Cantwell, spokesman for TransOcean, said TransOcean is doing its own investigation and noted the company was having a memorial service today for the workers killed in the explosion.
“We’ll comment at the appropriate time,” he said.
Meanwhile, a new Interior Department report released today found that staffers in the Louisiana office of the Minerals Management Service violated a number of federal regulations and agency ethics rules, including accepting gifts from oil and gas companies and using government computers to view pornography.
The report by the department’s acting inspector general follows up on a 2007 investigation that revealed what then-Inspector General Earl Devaney called a “culture of ethical failure” and conflicts of interest at the minerals agency.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the latest report “deeply disturbing” but stressed that it only covered a period from 2000 to 2008. He said he wants the investigation expanded to include agency actions since he took office in January 2009.
BP filed its site-specific exploration plan for the Deepwater Horizon in February 2009.
The Obama administration has come under increasing pressure as frustrations build, oil washes up in delicate Louisiana wetlands, and efforts to cap the well prove unsuccessful. Millions of gallons of oil have spilled and are starting to come ashore across a 150-mile swath from Grand Isle, La., to Dauphin Island, Ala., endangering wildlife and livelihoods in commercial fishing and tourism.
After butting heads with the administration, BP is now complying with a request that it spray less of a toxic dispersant it has been using to break up oil in the water, White House energy adviser Carol Browner said.
But she also said safer dispersants are not available in the needed quantities, so officials need more time to study alternatives.
All of BP’s attempts to stop the leak have failed, despite the oil giant’s use of joystick-operated submarine robots that can operate at depths no human could withstand.
Live underwater video showed the underwater plume getting significantly darker today, the color changing from medium gray to black. Two scientists noticed the change, which BP downplayed as a natural fluctuation that is not likely permanent.
But engineering professor Bob Bea at the University of California at Berkeley said the color change may indicate the leak has hit a reservoir of more oil and less gas. Gas is less polluting because it evaporates.
BP is pinning its latest hopes of stopping the gusher on a technique never tested 5,000 feet underwater: a “top kill,” in which heavy mud and cement would be shot into the well to plug it up.
BP engineers had the equipment in place today and planned to start 12 hours of tests to prepare for the maneuver, BP senior vice president Kent Wells said.
The top kill has proven successful in aboveground wells in Kuwait and Iraq, but has never before been tried a mile beneath the sea. Company executives peg its chances of success at 60 to 70 percent.
Engineers are working on several other backup plans, including injecting assorted junk into the well to clog it up and lowering a new blowout preventer on top of the one that failed.
The only certain permanent solution is a pair of relief wells crews have already started drilling, but the task could take at least two months.