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Experts: Answers on oil spill in the Gulf, not in Congress

By Ed Hornick, CNN
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When will the oil spill end?
  • BP will pay cost of claims, won't dip into $1.6 billion federal fund, BP America chairman says
  • Three oil companies testifying before Congress on recent oil explosion and leak
  • At the hearing, execs blame each others' companies
  • "Top hat" containment dome to be tried on Thursday

Washington (CNN) -- As a Senate committee was grilling oil industry executives about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, experts said there is an opportunity to learn from the catastrophe, but the lessons won't come from Congress.

On Tuesday at a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, three companies took turns blaming each other for the April accident that left 11 workers dead and oil still spewing into the Gulf.

After the first attempt to stem the gushing oil using a containment dome failed, officials should know by Thursday whether an attempt to use a small dome known as a "top hat" will work, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said.

"On this Thursday, we should know whether or not this alternative top hat cofferdam is going to work" Salazar told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "The next key date is Saturday, because by Saturday they will have the diagnostics completed through X-rays and gamma rays and pressure ratings to be able to make decisions about what the next steps are in terms of junk kill or top valve or a new blow-out prevention mechanism."

Edward Overton, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at Louisiana State University, said the blame game is an attempt by the companies to deny liability. The real lessons -- and answers -- can be learned in the Gulf, he said.

"We've got a problem right now and we've got to solve it and that's to try to mitigate what's going on now [in the Gulf] and studying the effects over time there," he said.

Ken Medlock, an energy fellow at Rice University, said understanding what caused the spill is "impossible at this point" because more needs to be learned at the scene.

"That's why you have these guys just throwing blame around, because frankly they don't know either," he said.

Medlock said the companies are now in crisis mode and are waging public relations campaigns to demonstrate they are doing everything they can, and did initially after the spill. That PR campaign has, in essence, taken the form of companies defending themselves before Congress and ultimately the American public.

In the Tuesday hearing, BP, the well's owner, said Transocean's valve -- or blowout preventer -- was to blame. But Transocean, in a written statement, said the blowout preventer performed fine in tests before the accident.

The real cause of the problem, according to Transocean chief executive Steven Newman, lies with the well's cementing. That was done by Halliburton. An executive from the company said it followed BP's orders on the cementing process.

While questions linger over what caused the explosion and leak, the other thing to keep in mind, Overton said, is the ecological and economic impact to the region.

The damages caused by closure of fishing grounds, shipping lanes and tourist spots could exceed the cleanup costs, and it's unclear which party will pay those or how much they'll be.

Video: Blame game at oil spill hearing
Video: Probing the Gulf Coast oil spill

Under federal law, BP, as the lead project operator, is responsible for all cleanup costs associated with the spill. On Monday, BP said it has spent $350 million so far.

"They [BP] certainly seem to be stepping up to the plate compensating some of the locals," Overton said. "This is the season for making a living. People are surviving in the winter, but the shrimping and fishing season and the tourist season [is going on now] ... so you're impacting the economic and ecological impact."

At Tuesday's hearing, the president and chairman of BP America Inc. said the company planned to pay out legitimate claims to those affected without calling on the federal government to foot the bill.

Lamar McKay said BP will not ask for money from the $1.6 billion Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to help pay for claims -- even if costs run over a $75 million liability cap.

"[BP CEO] Tony Hayward has said we're going to pay all claims that are legitimate. Just so you know, just to be exceptionally clear, we've said the $75 million is irrelevant and we have said we're not going to access the $1.6 billion fund," he said.

Medlock noted that while comparisons can be made to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the industry is more likely to study what happened when Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf and destroyed oil wells, pipelines and refineries.

"The Valdez is different because it was a tanker incident," he said. "I think in terms of cleanup, the closest example we have to learn from had to do with the spills that happened after Hurricane Katrina."

Medlock added that recovery efforts to clean up the oil through the process of burning were more effective on the recovery of the ecosystem there rather than letting nature simply take its course. "I would suspect those lessons be applied here to speed the recovery," he said.

As for what lessons will be learned from this recent oil disaster, Medlock said to expect more regulation of offshore drilling.

"I think what's probably going to come down from all of this are more stringent regulations in regard to secondary and tertiary safety mechanisms -- extra fail-safes."

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