NEW ORLEANS - The first two weeks of the BP civil trial has mostly been a rehash of what we learned more than two years ago: That a series of cost- and time-saving decisions by BP led to the catastrophic blowout of its deepwater well and the deaths of 11 rig workers.
But little nuggets of evidence released this week -- some from the witness stand, but mostly through old deposition testimony -- shed new light on just how much BP employees in Houston knew about the dangers the Deepwater Horizon rig crew was facing.
Government experts called to the stand before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier over the trial’s first two weeks have concluded the following:
That BP was close to $40 million over-budget on its Macondo well when it blew;
That it chose to save $7 million to $10 million on the back end by using a questionable well-lining design;
That, in spite of warnings about increased risks, it chose to use fewer devices to ensure a good seal on the well;
That BP’s top men on the rig looked at obviously disturbing pressure readings in the well and incorrectly declared the final test of the well’s integrity a success;
That BP ordered the removal of protective drilling mud from the well and replaced it with lighter seawater, allowing gas and oil to shoot up to the surface;
And that BP failed to properly certify the fail-safe device on the top of the well, the blowout preventer, and the device failed to activate properly.
I came to the same conclusions in this story I wrote back in September 2010.
But the real issue now before Barbier is just how liable BP is. And for that, the government is alleging not just negligence, but gross negligence. The difference is extremely significant. Pollution fines due from BP to the federal government (and to be shared 80 percent among the Gulf states) if it’s found simply negligent would be about $4.5 billion.
But if it’s found grossly negligent or found to have engaged in willful misconduct, the fines would expand to about $17.6 billion.
Transocean, which leased the rig to BP and provided most of the crew, has already admitted its own simple negligence.
So, really, this trial comes down to how much BP and its real decision-makers knew about the problems at Macondo and when did they know it.
In that regard, the most important new testimony centered on a phone call between BP’s top man on the rig and the engineer assigned to the Macondo project back in Houston. BP’s head of safety, Mark Bly, left the phone call out of his accident investigation report entirely.
Government experts, meanwhile, testified that the rig supervisor, Donald Vidrine, gave the engineer, Mark Hafle, plenty of information about anomalies in the pressure readings that it should have caused Hafle to stop the drilling operation and that it would have prevented the explosion.
Government expert Allan Huffman testified last week that BP engineers failed to inform federal regulators when they decided to drill with a narrower-than-allowed margin between the pore pressure and the fracture gradient. The pore pressure is from oil and gas in the gaps in seabed rock, trying to escape. The fracture gradient is the pressure exerted the other way, from inside the hole outward, by fluids the drilling team pours down the well.
A drilling team always has to track those opposing pressures to make sure it’s using heavy enough drilling mud to keep the well from collapsing in on itself, something known as a “kick,” but not using too much that it causes cracks in the surrounding rock.
Macondo suffered two kicks before the final kick went uncontrolled and resulted in the blowout.
And depositions given by other members of the BP oversight team in Houston have now been released by the court. The most explosive was from geologist Bobby Bodek, whose emails from weeks before the accident warn that they had “run out of drilling margin” and that drilling any further had “become a well integrity and safety issue.”
The other BP leaders ignored Bodek’s concerns and decided to drill another 1,000 feet into the seabed. Professor Eric Smith from the Tulane Energy Institute says it was because the BP officials weren’t thinking about a blowout, but just about making it through the next crisis.
“I think it is kind of interesting that the guy who is the most concerned convinces people to let him go out to the rig and then within a week he’s pulled back to shore. Well, why? Because that particular kick was cured,” Smith said. “And I think that’s the kind of incremental decision-making that goes on.”
Most strikingly, Bodek’s boss offers in one email to buy him drinks if the team can finish the well without any so-called “non-productive time,” and Bodek writes back “If they want to push this next hole section to TD (total depth), it will all be in God’s hands.”
In other emails, Bodek told members of the elite “Tiger Team” BP had put together to monitor Gulf drilling that the Deepwater Horizon crew was drilling too fast (85 feet per hour) to notice danger signs properly as mud-loggers and other experts read real-time data graphs tracking the pore pressure and fracture gradient thousands of feet under the sea.
But another scientist on his team, Kate Paine, blamed it on what she called a “we can get away with this attitude,” and they decided to keep drilling at a high rate of speed.
“That might be good in some formations, but we're on the Golden Zone of hydrocarbons, which came out this week at the trial, and these really fragile Myocene subsalt formations, and the data can't be interpreted when you're going this fast,” said Lillian Miller Espinoza-Gala, a member of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group from the University of California at Berkeley – a group that reported its findings to President Barack Obama’s Oil Spill Commission.
“In some ways I would compare it to driving 90 miles an hour on a steep mountain cliff.”
Espinoza-Gala says that is willful misconduct. But Tulane’s Smith says it’s far from the smoking gun Judge Carl Barbier will need to see to rule gross negligence.
“I think they’re going to find a series of incremental decisions, well-meaning, some riskier than others,” Smith said. “But they’re not going to find somebody saying, ‘I don’t care if it kills the whole crew and sinks the ship, do it.’ That’s not gonna happen.”