Conflict of interest questions raised in blowout preventer testing

A Transocean supervisor who worked on the Deepwater Horizon rig before it exploded has since participated in an investigation of the blowout preventer that failed to stop gushing oil from the well it was drilling — a possible conflict of interest that a congressional critic says threatens the integrity of the probe.

According to documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle, the Transocean employee has manipulated equipment on the 50-foot-tall, 300-ton blowout preventer, while a government contractor runs it through a battery of tests in New Orleans.

Transocean owned the Deepwater Horizon, which included the blowout preventer, and BP leased the rig to drill its doomed Macondo well.

Because the testing is essential to learning why the blowout preventer didn’t work as planned, the Transocean employee’s involvement raises “serious questions as to the credibility and objectivity of (the government’s) investigation,” said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who heads a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that has taken a lead role in probing the disaster.

“If we are to hold the companies legally responsible for this accident, we can’t afford any black mark on the investigation involving the ‘black box’ of this underwater disaster,” Markey said in a letter Tuesday to Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

The bureau and U.S. Coast Guard are jointly investigating the Deepwater Horizon disaster and are overseeing the autopsy on the blowout preventer that began in mid-November. It was pulled from the seabed a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico after engineers finally sealed the Macondo well that blew out, destroying the Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 workers and spilling an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The government contracted the forensic analysis firm Det Norske Veritas to run the equipment through tests designed to shed light on why key pipe-cutting and hole-closing components failed to slash through drill pipe and seal off the well hole.

DNV later arranged for Owen McWhorter, onetime subsea supervisor on the Deepwater Horizon, to assist in the testing.

The government instructed DNV to terminate its contract with McWhorter after concerns were raised last week by the Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency also investigating the disaster.

The decision to use the Transocean employee as a consultant appeared to violate a conflict-of-interest provision in the government’s contract with DNV, acknowledged Michael Farber, a senior adviser for the ocean energy bureau, in a letter to the Chemical Safety Board.

Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso had said that while McWhorter wasn’t on the rig when it blew up, he “still had responsibility for the (blowout preventer) in the preceding weeks and months.”

“While the CSB is not aware of any specific actions by Mr. McWhorter that would compromise the evidence, the effort by the (joint investigation team) and DNV to provide him with unique access to the testing could undermine public confidence in the quality, independence and reliability of the whole enterprise,” Moure-Eraso said in a Dec. 13 letter to the ocean energy bureau.

Photos of the testing space obtained by The Houston Chronicle show a man identified as McWhorter manipulating a pipe ram on the blowout preventer and working with other equipment on the device over at least a two-week period beginning as early as Nov. 23.

McWhorter could not be reached for comment.

Access to the testing space is limited to DNV workers and one representative each for key stakeholders, including BP, Transocean and Cameron International, which manufactured the blowout preventer. The Chemical Safety Board and the Justice Department, which are leading separate investigations of the disaster, also have access, as do the plaintiffs in a broad spill-related lawsuit.

According to the testing plan agreed to by those stakeholders, their representatives aren’t allowed to manipulate the blowout preventer and only one at a time is allowed inside the primary test area.

The safety board says it isn’t being given photographs that document the testing and complains that it now has been asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement that CSB likens to a ‘gag provision’ on all official photos and video taken at the site.

Technical difficulties have prevented the electronic sharing of photos and video captured during the testing so far, noted Farber, of the ocean energy bureau. But those problems “have been resolved” and an ftp site with thousands of images, videos and other documents should “be available imminently,” Farber said.

The Chemical Safety Board and the joint investigative team overseeing the testing have tangled before about access to the examination.

Bromwich previously questioned whether the board had statutory authority to investigate the Deepwater Horizon disaster, an issue that has loomed large in the CSB’s attempts to subpoena possible witnesses and get access to the BOP testing.

Although the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the safety board to investigate the oil spill, a federal statute authorizing the board says it is not authorized to conduct investigations of “marine oil spills.”

The CSB maintains that the prohibition on marine oil spill investigations refers to transportation-related disasters, such as the crash of the Exxon Valdez — not those that originate from stationary wells in the seabed of the outer continental shelf. CSB officials stress they are focusing on the explosion and not the spill itself.

The CSB’s authority to investigate cases like this one has never been tested in court. In a May 7 submission to the Energy and Commerce Committee, a CSB board member laid out his personal belief and argument that the agency had jurisdiction to investigate the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but acknowledged the board had not gotten an internal legal assessment of the question. And he acknowledged that even if the board had the power, “there remain significant practical constraints on our ability to exercise jurisdiction, including a lack of available resources and expertise on offshore operations.”

Image: The bottom of the blowout preventer stack from the Deepwater Horizon is seen at the NASA Michaud Assembly facility in New Orleans, where it is undergoing testing. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)