WASHINGTON — Engineers launched their latest effort to curb the crude oil gushing from a broken underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday as lawmakers on Capitol Hill wrangled over the liability limits for oil companies and continued to probe the mishaps and regulatory failures that caused the mammoth spill.
The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, which regulates oil rigs, came under more scrutiny as congressional investigators scheduled hearings to find out why the federal agency never completed rules that would have required additional controls on blowout preventers — the safety equipment that failed to stop the spill.
Staffers from the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, who traveled to Louisiana this week to sit in on the U.S. Coast Guard-led inquiry into the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig, said they learned from the testimony of Mike Saucier, an MMS regional supervisor for field operations, that new rules had been proposed.
Saucier said the agency prepared but never completed regulations in 2001 that would have required secondary control systems for blowout preventers.
BP engineers said their best chance to control the underwater oil leak now rests with a 6-inch-wide tube that they'd try to insert into a jagged 21-inch pipe that's spewing oil into the Gulf.
BP crews will insert the tube, which is surrounded by a rubber seal and attached to a tanker at the surface, sometime Thursday night, said BP spokesman Mark Proegler.
"We'll be operational as soon as possible, over the next several days," he said.
The tube will be inserted into the larger of two leaks, the one that's releasing about 85 percent of the estimated 210,000 gallons of crude a day, Proegler said.
If the tube fails, then BP officials have a back-up plan: lower a steel and concrete dome over the leak. The top hat, 4 feet in diameter and 5 feet tall, would be attached to a drill pipe that would siphon the oil to a ship at the surface.