Transocean CEO Says Gulf Oil Spill ‘Certainly Preventable’

Posted March 19, 2013 in Crime by

The top executive for Transocean, owner of the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon oil rig, testified today that the rig’s crew “should have done more” to prevent the April 2010 blowout that killed 11 workers and fouled the Gulf of Mexico with millions of barrels of oil.

Asked by a Transocean attorney if the crew was to blame for the accident, CEO Steven Newman testified that while the crew didn’t do enough, “I’m not sure that that’s the same emotional context as blame.”

Newman said the crew’s shortcomings compelled him to recommend that Transocean plead guilty in last year’s criminal probe into the disaster. The company paid $1.4 billion in fines as part of the deal, which did not include charges against any individual Transocean employees.

The accident “was certainly preventable,” Newman said, but he saved much of the blame for oil giant BP.

It’s BP’s Well — We Just Drilled It

Plaintiffs’ attorneys and prosecutors say the blowout occurred because workers were carelessly rushing to complete a well that was behind schedule and over budget. Newman didn’t deny that BP planned to drill the well faster and cheaper, but pointed out that the cost of the overruns wasn’t Transocean’s problem.

“We get paid for 24 hours worth of work,” Newman testified. “There’s no incentive to take 24 hours of work and condense it into 23 hours of work.”

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Newman also emphasized that it was BP’s responsibility to design a negative pressure test and review the results. BP has admitted that its well site leaders misinterpreted those results, dismissing red flags that signaled a loss of well control.

Newman, who became CEO of Transocean fewer than two months before the blowout, testified that “the buck for everything stops with me, including safety.”

But he limited the rest of his criticism of Transocean employees to the Deepwater Horizon’s crew, testifying that “we have not identified any management failures.”

Four Workers Killed in 2009

Newman also testified about a string of accidents that killed four Transocean workers on four different rigs during a 92-day span in 2009. The deaths involved three crane accidents and one fall down an open elevator shaft.

In response to those accidents, Transocean suspended rig operations across its entire fleet and ordered additional safety training for all crew members. The company instituted a new mantra for its safety culture: “Think, start and timeout for safety.”

During cross-examination, plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Cunningham tried to get Newman to agree that the 2009 accidents were signs that an accident like the Macondo well blowout was “predictable.” But Newman kept his focus on the revitalization of Transocean’s safety culture, stating that the company leadership understood it “needed to do something.”

Executives from BP and cement contractor Halliburton have also testified in defense of their companies’ safety cultures, as all three defendants are trying to avoid being found guilty of “gross negligence.” If U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier finds that any of the companies acted with reckless or willful disregard for human and environmental safety, they could pay billions more in penalties and punitive damages.

Cement Technician Testifies

Newman was followed on the stand by Timothy Quirk, a former Halliburton lab technician who conducted off-the-record tests of a cement blend based on the one used in the Macondo well.

Quirk confirmed that his supervisor, Ron Faul, asked him to run the tests and deliver the results by phone. Quirk testified such a request was “a little unusual.”

A Halliburton lawyer announced last week that cement samples found in their Lafayette, La., facility may be related to the blend used in the Macondo well. The cement was discovered after Halliburton was ordered to prepare a report responding to allegations that Quirk disposed of the samples after testing them.

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