Expert Witnesses Harpoon BP, Transocean, Halliburton

Posted March 6, 2013 in Crime Editors Picks by

A controlled burn of oil from the Macondo well after the Deepwater Horizon explosion

A controlled burn of oil from the spill caused by the Deepwater Horizon explosion. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin E. Stumberg)

Two expert witnesses testified today in the civil trial against oil company BP and its contractors, Transocean and Halliburton, listing the critical errors they say contributed to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

Oil drilling expert Richard Heenan focused on the misinterpretation of a negative pressure test by BP and Transocean crew, calling their interpretation a “gross and extreme departure” from “good oilfield practices.”

BP attorney Mike Brock objected to Heenan’s choice of words, saying it was the duty of U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to determine whether BP and Transocean are guilty of “gross negligence.”

Pressed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Underhill to explain his “gross” departure accusation, Heenan said, “I had some other words that are not appropriate here, more things you hear on the drill floor.”


Damages Hinge on Negligence, Responsibility

Click here to read our full coverage of the trial.

Brock’s reminder about Barbier determining gross negligence cuts to the heart of this first phase of a three-phase trial. If BP is merely found negligent, it will pay less than $5 billion in fines, but if it meets the tough standard of gross negligence, those fines will top $17 billion. And that’s not to mention the punitive damages Barbier could tack onto the bill.

Heenan testified that “even a layperson” would be able to quickly understand that the rig crew’s interpretation of the negative pressure test was physically impossible, adding that he “couldn’t comprehend” how they reached their conclusions.

Under cross-examination from Brock, Heenan was asked to confirm his earlier testimony that BP’s rig contractor Transocean violated good oilfield practice by misinterpreting the pressure test results. Heenan responded that he recalled blaming both BP and Transocean, to which Brock interjected, “Others have focused on BP. I’m going to focus on Transocean.”

The finger-pointing among BP, Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton is related to another key aspect of the trial’s first phase. Judge Barbier will determine each company’s share of the blame for the accident, which will be the basis for divvying up the damages at the conclusion of phase three. Phase two will focus on estimates of the amount of oil leaked in the wake of the disaster, and could also have a major impact on each company’s final tally.


Faulty Cement

Later in the day, oil well cement expert Glen Benge cited numerous problems with the cement job spearheaded by Halliburton and supervised by BP. He explained that some of the cement slurry used in the Macondo well was leftover from an Alaskan oil well project, instead of being engineered specifically for the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. He said that the temperature of the cement wasn’t properly controlled, which prevented it from properly setting.

Benge also explained how the cement well may have been flawed from the get-go due to the use of too few “centralizers” — devices that keep the drill pipe centered throughout the drilling  and well building process. If there aren’t enough centralizers to ensure a symmetrical well construction, one cement wall of the well will be narrower than the other, and the narrow side can develop channels that allow oil and gas to bubble up from the reserve. Halliburton recommended 21 centralizers for the Macondo well, but BP only used six.

Earlier in the day, BP well site leader Ronnie Sepulvado testified that he had safety concerns about using centralizers, noting that they had fallen off drill pipes in the past. He worried that a stray centralizer could jam the blowout preventer, which could then allow oil to flow freely into the Gulf.


Safety First, Says BP Leader

Sepulvado was a well site leader aboard Deepwater Horizon until four days before the accident, when he returned to shore to renew his expiring well control certificate. He was replaced by Robert Kaluza, who joined fellow BP well site leader Donald Vidrine. Kaluza and Vidrine are the only two individuals to be charged with manslaughter for the 11 deaths that occurred on the rig.

Sepulvado denied feeling pressure to rush through the project, despite the Macondo well already being behind schedule and over budget.

“I don’t believe in pushing people to keep schedule,” he said. “I’m just not going to do it, especially when safety is involved.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys and prosecutors have alleged that an “every dollar counts” corporate culture at BP influenced workers to value profits over safety, but Sepulvado said that isn’t true.

“It means better planning for trying to get equipment in and out in a shorter window,” he said, explaining that the cost-conscious philosophy is about avoiding unnecessary waste.

What do you think of the BP trial testimony so far? Let us know in the comments section below.

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