By Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Houston Chronicle
WASHINGTON — The Chemical Safety Board launches its first hearing on the Deepwater Horizon disaster today with plans to scrutinize the way other countries regulate offshore drilling and hear firsthand accounts from BP workers.
The five-member board also is set to examine industry safety practices with representatives of oil companies and trade groups.
A number of other panels also are probing what caused the April 20 blowout of BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which triggered a lethal explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and the United States’ worst offshore oil spill.
But as an independent federal agency with a 20-year history investigating chemical accidents, the board is in a unique position to identify the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and examine regulatory lapses that may have contributed to the disaster, board leaders say.
Rafael Moure-Eraso, the board chairman, said he hopes today’s hearing will offer lessons on how other countries have decided to organize and regulate offshore production. Offshore drilling regulators from the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia are scheduled to testify.
“We are in a learning mode here, and part of our investigation will be to hear from them how they do it,” Moure-Eraso said.
Lawmakers and a presidential commission also are eyeing the regulatory regime in other countries, which have developed systems requiring companies to identify risks and develop plans for mitigating them.
Invitation turned down
Michael Bromwich, who heads the the U.S. agency that oversees offshore drilling, declined the board’s invitation to appear at today’s hearing, Moure-Eraso said.
Melissa Schwartz, a spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, said Bromwich “made himself available to have discussions with Chairman Moure-Eraso or members of the CSB’s investigative team, as would be a more appropriate process between agencies conducting separate investigations.”
Two exploration and production workers from BP’s operations in Alaska are slated to testify about their experience in the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Union representatives are expected to describe their efforts to push for a more protective regulatory system.
Moure-Eraso said the BP workers will deliver a firsthand look at how BP deals with safety issues.
Industry representatives on tap for the daylong hearing include Erik Milito, upstream director for the American Petroleum Institute; Alan Spackman, a vice president for the International Association of Drilling Contractors; and Joe Leimkuhler, an offshore well delivery manager for Shell Oil Co.
Behind the scenes, Chemical Safety Board investigators have been interviewing offshore drilling experts and workers who were on the rig when it exploded.
Don Holmstrom, the board’s investigations manager, said the agency is still “meeting resistance from some personnel — particularly those who are employed by Transocean.” Some workers have rebuffed CSB subpoenas. Holmstrom said the board is working with the Justice Department to get them enforced.
Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon, has said it is cooperating.
Blowout preventer work
Safety board engineers also are participating in a closed-door forensic analysis of the blowout preventer that failed as a last line of defense when pressure built in the Macondo well.
A joint investigation by the Coast Guard and the ocean energy bureau is overseeing that examination.
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