Expert witness against BP cites negligence and profit pursuit at safety’s expense in trial

Publish date: February 28, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

In a heavy blow against BP’s claimed that it was not responsible for gross negligence in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, an expert witness yesterday testified that the oil major disregarded evidence that the Macondo well was unstable.

Expert witness Alan Huffman, chief technology officer for Fusion Petroleum Technologies Inc, was called to the New Orleans trial by the plaintiffs, who are seeking some $17.6 billion in civil compensation for Gulf of Mexico states for the 2010 blowout that lasted for 84 days, spilling some 4.1 million barrels of oil.

The spill represented the worst in US history.

Huffman, a former geophysicist for Conoco and Exxon told the third day of the New Orleans trial that BP should have heeded a “kick” in the well.

“It is truly egregious to drill that extra 100 feet, knowing you could lose the well in the process,” he said, according to court transcripts.

There has meanwhile been little progress in attempting to settle the civil case out of court between the plaintiffs and BP, who have put a $16 billion off on the table, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“A settlement is exactly what we do not want to see,” said Bellona President Frederic Hauge. “This would stifle the testimony of expert witnesses who can offer testimony on no only the negligence of BP, but the kinds of corner-cutting that is accepted by the world oil industry on a daily basis.”

“Let big oil see what happens when their haphazard pursuit of profit over safety result in catastrophic spills,” Hauge added.

Circle of blame

BP meanwhile accepts partial responsibility for the oil spill, but claims other firms at the trial share the blame and costs.

These firms include Transocean, the operator of the Deepwater Horizon rig that was drilling the Macondo well, and Halliburton, who provided cement for lining the well.

Both of those firms have sought to apportion all the blame for the 2010 oil spill to BP.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 men. Since the leak was plugged, the debate over who was responsible has raged on.

If BP loses, it could face a huge fine, despite having already agreed in 2012 to pay $4.5bn to settle criminal charges.

An unfavorable trial verdict could see the firm liable for the biggest civil fine in history, of up to $17.6bn. It has also paid out $7.8bn in a settlement with people and businesses affected.

A “gross negligence” finding, under US law, would mean BP would be responsible for paying $4,400 per barrel of oil spilled instead of the standard penalty of $1,100 for a spill.

Unstable pressure should have stopped drilling

Huffman said a kick during the drilling of the Macondo well that occurred as early as 2009 ­­– a year before the spill­ – was clear evidence of gas or oil intrusion.

He said it should have made plain to BP employees that the pressure under the well was unstable, making the well “dangerous and fragile,” and that drilling should have stopped immediately, court transcripts show.

Bellona advisor Erlend Fjosna agreed with Huffman’s assessment, explaining that during drilling operations, drillers never know when they will hit a resource, which punctures a high pressure pocked.

Mud is used both for pressure suppression and lubrication because it has a very high density within the drill hole column.

Mud’s weight is meant to suppress a blowout, but there are never any guarantees that it will, said Fjosna. Because of this, well pressure must be carefully monitored so measures can be taken to avoid a kick – which results in everyone on the drilling floor be rained with mud. Such warning signals like a kick that blows all the mud back up the drill hold column are warning signs that cannot be ignored, said Fjosna.

Mud is never guaranteed as prevention to a blowout because the puncture pressure can always be higher that the weight of mud can withstand. Additionally, when gas is entrained in the mud, it lowers the muds density.

“This spells trouble,” said Fjosna. “The only thing to do when this occurs is to shut down drilling – a full shutdown that means closing the blowout preventor valve, causing the drilling string to be shut.”

But Fjosna also noted that such procedures “cost lost of money.”

In Fjosna’s estimation, “Huffman’s testimony is right.”

Profit over safety

The lawyers bringing the action on behalf of the US Department of Justice and the US states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas, which where heavily affected by the spill, have accused BP of putting profits ahead of safety.

Earlier in the day, the court heard recorded testimony from former chief executive Tony Hayward ­­– who famously said at the height of the spill “I’d like my life back,” as well as direct testimony form Kevin Lacy, BP’s former head of drilling operations. 

Contradictory testimony between Hayward and former drilling chief

Hayward even put in a personal cameo appearance during yesterday’s proceedings, but his role may be limited in the current trial by his lack of direct knowledge of the drilling operations on the Deepwater Horizon.

The 20-minute recorded deposition recorded of Hayward from hours of examination that was presented to the court and the direct testimony of Lacy contradicted one another.

Hayward’s recorded testimony insisted that cost-cutting at BP had no affect on drilling operations at BP.

In contrast, Lacy testified that $250 million to 300 million had been cut from his budget in 2008-09, while production increased by over 50 percent.

“I was never given a directive to cut corners or deliver something not safely, but there was tremendous pressure on costs,” he said according to the court record.

Lacy resigned from BP a few months before the spill, because of his concerns about safety.

The court was also treated to photographs of Hayward taken while the Macondo well was spewing into the gulf at a yacht race, according to court transcripts.

He was criticized by the plaintiffs’ attorneys for saying at that time that the amount of oil the BP well was belching into the waters was relatively small given the size of the Gulf.

Hayward was accused by the plaintiffs’ lawyers of directing his employees to downplay the disaster to keep stock prices afloat.

BP points fingers at subcontractors

The court day began with another BP executive, exploration and production head Lamar McKay, who finished his live testimony that began Tuesday, repeating the line he gave on Tuesday that others shared the blame with BP.

“We’ve agreed that we’re part of the responsibility for this tragic accident,” he said. “We’ve apologized for that.”

Cross-examining McKay, lawyers acting for Transocean got him to agree that Deepwater Horizon had been “a very safe operating rig” but only “up until the accident.”

Halliburton’s lawyer produced an email sent by BP engineer Brian Morel to colleagues on the day of the well blowout that said: “Just wanted to let you know that the Halliburton cement team they sent out did a great job.”

“It is very good that BPs failings are being laid bare in trial,” said Bellona President Hauge. “This emai and BPs insistence on pushing forward with drilling are clear evidence of the oil industry’s propensity for self-delusion to make money at the expense of safety ­– now BP is on the hook for some of the biggest civil penalties ever paid out.”