As Spill Recedes, Probes Advance


The months-long saga of BP PLC’s leaking well might be nearly over, but the investigations have only begun.

BP’s attempt to use cement to effectively kill its ruptured well a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico “appears to be performing as expected,” Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said Friday.

The company planned to go forward nevertheless with an effort to drill a relief well that would intersect the damaged well in about 10 days, and pump in more mud and cement from the bottom if necessary.

Mr. Suttles’s comments came amid a growing sense that the end of one of the darkest chapters of BP’s history, following the rupture of a deepwater well that killed 11 and unleashed the worst accidental marine oil spill in history, might be close at hand.

Still, there are months, or perhaps years, of cleanup work ahead for the company, which has spent more than $4 billion on the spill response so far.

BP engineers say they’re done cementing the throat of the busted well… and now they’re just waiting for it to dry. It’s one of the last steps of the “static kill.” Marianne Rafferty reports. Courtesy Fox News.

Moreover, BP, Transocean Ltd., Halliburton Co. and other companies involved with the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig face years of potentially distracting probes and inquiries into what caused the fatal blowout, why the gushing well wasn’t stopped sooner and other questions.

The investigations might bring changes to the way the offshore oil industry operates in the U.S. and even criminal charges against some of the companies’ employees, legal and industry experts say.

The U.S. Justice Department has opened a criminal probe into the spill, which Attorney General Eric Holder has said could wind up affecting more than just BP. Investigators are gathering documents and interviewing witnesses.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal offshore regulator, is conducting hearings into the industry’s preparedness for another spill and is expected to issue rules governing offshore drilling.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is continuing its probe of the spill and committee leaders hope to issue a report in December, said Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, a senior Democrat on the panel.

The Senate, meanwhile, is embroiled in a largely partisan clash over what sort of legislation should be enacted in the wake of the accident. A key point of contention is whether to remove a $75 million cap on an oil company’s liability for economic damages after spills. The issue is expected to be taken up again in September.

Mr. Stupak said he hoped his panel’s investigation could shine a light on problems and lead to changes in corporate behavior. “Exxon was able to change its operations after Valdez,” he said. “Hopefully, British Petroleum will be able to do the same thing.”

Meanwhile, a joint investigation into the spill by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management began shortly after the April 20 blowout and is expected to convene again later this month in Houston to continue taking testimony. The panel is expected to write up its conclusions about what happened and make recommendations.

An independent commission appointed by President Barack Obama to look into the disaster also began meeting last month. It is examining everything from potential causes of the blowout to the environmental impact of chemicals used to disperse oil in the Gulf. The commission is expected to submit a report to Mr. Obama early next year.

The federal Chemical Safety Board, a body that investigates industrial accidents, also has begun a formal inquiry, expected to last two years, and has begun collecting documents. Even the National Academy of Engineering is conducting a probe into the matter. Dozens of civil suits also have been filed along the Gulf Coast that will require the attention of the companies’ lawyers for years.

The result of all these probes is that BP, and to a lesser degree other companies involved, will continue to devote time and resources to defending themselves.

“They will be under the spotlight for an extended time,” said John Hofmeister, a former top executive at Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s U.S. operations.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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