Spill trial’s first phase ends as BP concludes its defense
22nd April 2013 · 0 Comments
By Susan Buchanan
Last week, BP called its final witnesses in Phase One or the first act of the Gulf spill trial that began in New Orleans on Feb. 25. The U.K. company has tried to shift blame to Transocean and Halliburton for the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. Attorney Mike Brock, representing BP, said in U.S. District Court Wednesday that the firm rested its case.
As the first phase wound down, Judge Carl Barbier said the parties involved will have 60 days to submit written briefs outlining their conclusions and another twenty days for reply briefs. Barbier is assessing negligence by Macondo well-operator BP, rig owner Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton in the deadly blast that occurred off Louisiana’s coast. A second phase of the trial, starting in September, will consider how much oil escaped the well. In a third phase, which might begin early next year, Barbier will rule on negligence that led to the nation’s worst offshore spill.
Last Monday, the court heard testimony from John Guide, BP’s Houston-based wells team leader. The University of Pittsburgh-trained engineer was responsible for approving all steps in the design and drilling of the Macondo well. He said well-site leaders were frustrated in April 2010 by a series of eleventh-hour changes, particularly in the well’s cement plan. An April 17, 2010 email written by Guide to his boss David Sims said “well-site leaders have finally come to their wits’ end.” In that email, Guide quoted Don Vidrine, who said crew members were “flying by the seat of our pants.” Vidrine and Robert Kaluza were BP’s well-site leaders on the rig. On Monday, Guide said “changing of little things was seriously making their job harder.”
In April 2010, BP was in the process of “completing” the Macondo well and turning it into a producing well. BP planned to move the Deepwater Horizon rig to another drilling job in the Gulf, however, and wanted to bring a different rig to the Macondo site. The Deepwater Horizon crew was responsible for securing the Macondo well before the rig moved to make sure that nothing leaked in or out of it. Cement was needed to isolate hydrocarbons down below and keep them from coming up the well. The well blew out during the crew’s April 20, 2010 abandonment process.
In his April 17, 2010 email, Guide said everybody wanted to do the right thing but a “huge level of paranoia from engineering leadership is driving chaos.” An April 1, 2010 reorganization had separated engineering and operations, causing friction, he said. Guide’s email said “Brian has called me numerous times, trying to make sense of all the insanity,” referring to BP’s Brian Morel—a top young engineer.
“Last night’s emergency evolved around 30 barrels of cement spacer behind the top plug,” Guide’s email said. “I did not agree with putting the spacer above the top plug to begin with.” Liquid spacer is used to separate mud from seawater. David Sims, apparently trying to ease tensions, responded to Guide that the last-minute changes were “a great learning opportunity.”
On April 20, 2010, the rig’s crew pumped seawater down the drill pipe to displace drilling mud in the pipe. Since mud can be contaminated in contact with seawater and mud is also expensive, the crew used spacer fluid as a buffer to separate the water and mud.
In completing the well, BP went ahead with a temporary abandonment even though BP’s onshore, senior drilling engineer Mark Hafle had recommended permanent abandonment. On April 20, 2010 when a negative pressure test was done, well-site leaders phoned Hafle about a troubling pressure differential. But they didn’t return several phone calls from Guide in Houston that day, Guide said last week. The negative pressure test was incorrectly interpreted by BP and Transocean leaders on the rig as successful when it had failed.
In a federal indictment last year, Kaluza and Vidrine were charged with mismanaging the pressure test and missing signs that the well wasn’t secure. They’re awaiting trial now after pleading not guilty last fall to 11 counts each of manslaughter. Eleven workers died in the rig’s explosion while 115 survived and took life boats and rafts to the Damon Bankston, a nearby supply vessel.
Guide said last Monday that he did nothing to contribute to the blowout and had never compromised well safety, which he said was BP’s number-one priority. “I don’t think I could have done anything different,” he said.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys have accused BP of cutting corners as they temporarily abandoned the well, which was behind schedule and over budget. Guide said he authorized money-saving measures in BP’s “every dollar counts” campaign. But those measures, which included ridding the rig of unused equipment, didn’t jeopardize safety, he said.
On Monday, Guide was asked about BP’s April 2010 tensions with Halliburton over cement lab tests and centralizers. Guide said “I trusted Jesse,” referring to Halliburton cement expert Jesse Gagliano, who was embedded in BP’s Houston office. But Guide said Gagliano was slow in delivering some cement-test results.
Guide said he didn’t think that another fifteen centralizers, recommended by Gagliano four days before the rig exploded, should be used because the ones that were to be delivered to the rig weren’t the right design. And he especially didn’t want to risk leaving the well hole open for ten hours to install the wrong equipment. BP ran only six centralizers though Halliburton had recommended twenty-one and had warned that using too few would make the well susceptible to a gas influx. Centralizers keep a well’s metal casing pipe centered while cement is poured around its sides. Guide said his decision to overrule Halliburton had nothing to do with saving BP money.
Last Tuesday, Patrick O’Bryan, BP’s former drilling and completion vice president for the Gulf, said the Deepwater Horizon was one of Transocean’s better rigs. But on April 20, 2010, the rig’s Captain Curt Kuchta, employed by Transocean, wasn’t sure what to do after the power system failed, O’Bryan said. Kuchta thought the blowout preventer couldn’t be activated without approval from Transocean’s offshore-installation manager Jimmy Harrell, who’d been hurt in the blast. Harrell soon made it up to the bridge, however, and deployed the rig’s emergency safety system.
BP’s final witness Wednesday was U.K. native and marine-safety expert Andrew Mitchell, an offshore oil veteran who is now an International Safety Management Code consultant. He said Captain Kuchta had up to eight minutes after the rig’s crisis began to activate the well’s blowout preventer by pressing a button on the wall. But because of a confusing command structure, Kuchta waited for Harrell to reach the bridge to activate the BOP, Mitchell said. Kuchta didn’t exercise his authority as captain and missed the last possible chance to save the ship, he said.
On Tuesday, environmentalists and community advocates protested outside U.S. District Court on Poydras St. to mark the third anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion on Saturday, April 20. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser—along with David Muth, director of Mississippi River Delta Restoration for the National Wildlife Federation, and several other speakers—urged Judge Barbier not to be lenient on BP. They demanded that BP remove oil and remnants that remain along the Gulf Coast. Stiff court penalties against BP would help pay for needed coastal restoration and deter offshore accidents, speakers said.
In November, BP pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter and to lying about the size of the spill. The company agreed to pay $4.5 billion in criminal penalties. BP has now spent over $14 billion on Gulf-spill cleanup and response and paid more than $10 billion to individuals, businesses and local governments for spill-related losses. It faces billions of dollars more in civil claims from the feds and Gulf states. If BP is found grossly negligent in the spill, the company will have to pay up to $17 billion in fines under the Clean Water Act.
As the trial’s Phase One ended Wednesday afternoon, Judge Barbier said the amount of evidence that the court and parties will have to consider is huge. “I am thinking 60 days for simultaneous, post-trial briefing and submission of findings of fact; proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law,” he said. “And then I’m thinking 20 days thereafter for reply briefs.” Those briefs will be subject to page limits.
Barbier thanked the attorneys involved. “The quality of the lawyering and the professionalism and civility with which this case has been tried is exemplary,” and that made his job easier, he said. Barbier said he was glad the trial took only two months instead of a projected three. He recessed Phase One of the trial and Phase Two is now more than four months away, giving the parties time to prepare this summer.
This article originally published in the April 22, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.