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Oil executives point fingers in Congress over oil spill

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Representatives of BP, Transocean and Halliburton speak to senators

Oil executives have traded blame in Congress over the Gulf Coast oil spill, as the battle to contain it continues.

British oil giant BP told a Senate hearing a crucial safety device used by drilling contractor Transocean failed.

Senators heard Transocean argue in turn that BP had been in charge and that a third firm, a BP contractor, did not plug the exploratory well properly.

President Barack Obama was said by the White House to be "deeply frustrated" the oil leak had yet to be stopped.

The Obama administration has announced a break-up of the federal oil industry watchdog amid fears of a conflict of interest.

Golf balls

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters the administration would "establish independence and separation" for the Minerals Management Service, which both inspects rigs and collects oil royalties.

MARDELL'S AMERICA
Mark Mardell
There's been plenty of technical detail in Washington as three companies try to explain what went wrong... In simple language it's a blame game
Mark Mardell
BBC North America editor

Eleven people died when an explosion destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on 20 April.

Some 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) of oil a day have been gushing into the sea since then, threatening the delicate ecosystem of the US Gulf coast.

Soldiers using helicopters and bulldozers, helped by prison inmates, are battling to contain the slick.

BP's efforts to cap the well were set back at the weekend when a giant metal funnel lowered over the site suffered a build-up of ice-like crystals and had to be put aside.

BP hopes to make a second attempt this week to seal the well.

The oil giant's latest plan is to ram rubbish such as golf balls and shredded tyres into the leak to block the hole, says BBC North America editor Mark Mardell.

The broken pipe is almost a mile (1.6km) below the ocean's surface, with little visibility for remote-controlled vehicles. A relief well is being drilled but may take up to three months to complete.

'Cascade of errors'

In Washington, BP, Transocean and a third firm, Halliburton, gave senators technical explanations of what went wrong.

But in simple language it was a blame game, our North America editor says.

ATTEMPTS TO CONTROL SLICK
An oil-soaked bird struggles against the side of a ship in Gulf of Mexico
Booms have been partly successful although rough seas have washed oil over them
Some controlled burning of oil has taken place, but it causes serious air pollution
About 325,000 gallons of dispersant have been used, although scientists warn it may kill marine life
A relief well is being drilled but could take many weeks
A huge steel funnel suffered a build-up of ice-like crystals and had to be put aside

Deepwater Horizon was owned and operated by Swiss-based Transocean, but was working on behalf of BP.

Lamar McKay, head of BP America, focused on a critical safety device, the 450-tonne blowout protector (BOP).

It was supposed to shut off oil flow on the ocean floor in the event of a well blowout, but he said it had "failed to operate".

He noted that BP had not owned the rig and so "responsibility for the safety of drilling operations" belonged to Transocean.

But Transocean chief executive Steven Newman said there was no reason to believe the BOP had been at fault.

"Offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator, in this case BP," he said.

He also pinned blame on the failure of a cement oil-well casing built by BP contractor Halliburton.

However, Halliburton executive Tim Probert argued his firm had followed all requirements set out by BP and industry practices.

Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman said the oil rig explosion had probably been due to a "cascade of errors, technical, human and regulatory".

The BBC's North America editor says the details of the engineering may be obscure, but the motivation is clear enough: no-one wants to say the loss of lives, the environmental impact or the economic effect was their fault.

Accepting blame will have huge financial consequences.

And President Obama wants new laws to lift the cap on how much firms are liable to pay for such disasters from millions to billions of dollars - and that would apply to this accident, our North America editor adds.

Sex and drugs

Announcing a shake-up at the Minerals Management Service (MMS), Interior Secretary Salazar said it was important to build "a strong and independent organisation holding energy companies accountable".

"The tragedy aboard the Deepwater Horizon and the massive spill for which BP is responsible has made the importance and urgency of our reform agenda even clearer," he added.

Critics say the MMS - a branch of Mr Salazar's Department of the Interior - has been riddled with conflicts of interest.

They argue that the two core responsibilities of the MMS are diametrically opposed - making money off the industry by collecting royalties, while cracking down on it in ways that may affect the industry's bottom line.

A 2008 internal investigation found some MMS employees had taken drugs and had sex with energy company representatives.

Some staff had also accepted gifts and free holidays amid "a culture of ethical failure", according to the investigation.

The interior secretary has been conducting a 30-day review of offshore drilling at the request of President Obama.



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