Second phase of BP trial over the 2010 Gulf oil spill focuses on flow rates, ‘top kills’ and ‘junk shots’ | NOLA.com
By Mark Schleifstein, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
on September 30, 2013 at 8:25 PM, updated September 30, 2013 at 11:47 PM
The second phase of the BP Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill trial resumed in New Orleans on Monday (Sept. 30), with attorneys for private plaintiffs teaming up with BP contractors Transocean and Halliburton to accuse the international oil giant of failing in its disaster preparations and its attempts to stop the flow of oil, and BP attorneys arguing that the company spent billions of dollars to staunch the flow amid uncertain conditions.
Seats in U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier’s courtroom were at a premium at the beginning of a four-day discussion of BP’s efforts to halt the flow of oil, with lawyers taking up space on the courtroom floor and in all of the seats usually reserved for jurors, and reporters and the public vying for space in the audience.
Next week, the proceedings will focus on how much oil leaked into the environment, which in turn informs the size of the fines BP could pay. That part of the trial will pit the federal Justice Department against BP and its drilling partner, Anadarko Exploration Co.
The first phase this spring focused on the liability of BP and its partners during the drilling of the well and the period between April 20 and April 22, when the Macondo well blew out, sparking a fire and explosion that sank Transocean’s Deepwater Horizion drilling rig, killing 11 workers and beginning the oil release.
“BP’s plan was nothing more than a plan to plan,” plaintiffs’ attorney Brian Barr said Monday in an opening statement for the “aligned parties,” the private plaintiffs and the BP contractors.
Barr said the company’s 600-page disaster response plan included only one page on controlling the source of a blown-out well, and its employees lacked training on that scenario. “BP knew of the gaps in its ability to control the source of a deep-water blowout,” Barr said.
The company began drilling relief wells early in the three-month oil spill crisis, but Barr said that lengthy process “should be considered a measure of last resort. For BP, relief wells were a matter of only resort.”
Barr said the plaintiffs’ case will show that BP long knew the solution that ultimately worked – capping the ruined blowout preventer stack that was billowing oil with a new one – was the best option and could have ended the gusher sooner.
Then Brad Brian, an attorney for Transocean, the owner of the doomed Deepwater Horizon rig and an opponent of BP in this part of the case, accused BP of focusing on a doomed approach called the “top kill” – pumping heavy drilling mud, along with debris called a “junk shot” aimed at clogging the interior of the equipment stack, into the well to push back the flow of oil.
The company announced publicly and told senior government officials that a comparatively small amount of oil was flowing from the well, small enough to be controlled by top kill, when internal estimates showed the flow was dramatically greater, enough to guarantee failure.
“BP pressed ahead and falsely claimed that it was a slam dunk,” Brian said. “BP could not admit the larger truth that the flow rate was too great,” he said. While company officials were saying only 5,000 barrels a day were being released, the company’s own estimates ranged as high as 100,000 barrels per day.
In videotaped depositions shown to Barbier on Monday – he’s weighing the evidence without a jury – former U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt exclaimed, “Oh, wow!” when shown an internal BP memo dated before the top kill procedure she helped approve. The memo said the flow could be as high as 100,000 barrels, well above the 15,000 barrels recommended as the highest flow rate for the procedure.
Shown an internal BP email from about the same time that warned workers that no one was to receive top kill flow data “outside the circle of trust,” McNutt said, “I guess I’m not in the circle of trust.”
Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who oversaw a team of scientists advising the federal government on its approval of BP’s attempts to shut off the well, said in his videotaped deposition that he was unaware that BP was releasing internal estimates showing the well was flowing at a much higher rate than senior BP officials were telling him.
Asked what he would have said at the time if he’d known BP had more information about the flow rates that wasn’t being shown to federal officials, Chu said, “It would have started a conversation somewhere along the lines of, ‘We’re here to help you. We need all the information that’s relevant.’”
A third videotaped deposition, of BP flow expert Mike Mason, focused on an incident when he was called into a senior BP official’s office after mentioning one of the high flow rate estimates in an interoffice email and was told to speak of them only with other BP officials in person.
“Next time you have an idea or a thought like this email note, we would appreciate it if you would walk over and discuss it with us,” Mason said he was told by BP executive Jasper Peijs.
That meeting occurred just before a May 13-16 meeting with representatives of several federal energy laboratories about how best to close off the well. Mason said he did not mention the higher flow rates during that meeting.
In BP’s defense, lawyer Mike Brock questioned the logic of asserting that the company would put considerable resources, including ships, piping systems and the attention of hundreds of employees, into a method it knew would fail but couldn’t admit because of low-balled flow rates.
“Our source control efforts in shutting down the Macondo well were extraordinary,” Brock said.
Brock also attacked the idea that flow rate estimates changed the course of events. First off, he said, the rates and conditions were always uncertain. “Decisions had to be made in the absence of information,” he said.
The next step after the failed top kill attempt, Brock said, was to collect as much oil as possible, which he argued was not the behavior of someone trying to conceal higher flow levels.
Arguing in hindsight that there were better approaches, he said “is Monday morning quarterbacking at its worst.”
Brock said BP spent more than $1.6 billion on its response efforts, pursuing every reasonable option, including several strategies simultaneously and always staying mindful of avoiding a move that would have made matters worse.
He said the option of installing another blowout preventer on top of the failed one was not feasible at the rate of speed that the aligned parties’ attorneys said was possible.
And he said that as BP calls its experts to testify, they will confirm that the company’s explanation for why the top kill failed – ruptured discs in the well – was plausible and was not a cover-up of flow numbers.
“Our well control plan is consistent with every other operator in the Gulf of Mexico,” Brock said.
Monday’s first expert witness was John Wilson, a fluid mechanics specialist called by the aligned parties’ attorneys to testify that BP’s internal computer models were showing higher flow rates than what the company was reporting to the government, news media and public.
“The momentum kill is very much dependent on flow rate,” Wilson said, referring to the pumping of drilling mud into the well as part of the top kill procedure. “You need enough force to overcome the momentum of the upward flowing well. I saw no evidence that it was a slam dunk,” that the top kill would work, Wilson said.
In cross-examining Wilson and other witnesses, BP attorneys tried to show that BP officials gave one or more of the higher flow estimates to senior federal officials or lower-level scientists advising them. They also tried to suggest that federal officials should have been coming up with their own estimates of the flow rate to inform their decision-making.
Under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the federal government is required to partner with the responsible party, in this case BP, in fighting an oil leak.
For instance, a BP attorney asked several times whether Wilson had reviewed government estimates of the oil flow and how they were made before the top kill procedure. No, Wilson said, he was not asked to review that information as part of his expert witness report, which focused only on BP’s actions.
The BP attorneys tried again with the aligned parties’ second witness, Gregg Perkin, an engineer with Engineering Partners International. Perkin testified that the top kill method, including its junk shot effort, was doomed to fail because the company was trying to pump the mud and junk through a 3-inch-wide pipe to close a 16-¾-inch well that was flowing at a pressure strong enough to not even allow the material into the main well.
“The analogy I use is taking a box of raisins and damming the Colorado River with it,” Perkin said.
He agreed that there was risk that if that method worked, of causing a “hard shut in,” where the pressure of oil from below would be shut down so quickly that it could fracture the earth below, causing fissures allowing the escape of oil. But that’s not what happened, he said.
Perkin also questioned the reasons BP gave for its failure – that the mud had caused “rupture disks” to fail, allowing the mud to escape into the well without stopping the flow of oil.
The consequences of giving that reason for the failure, though, was that BP then nixed the proposal to turn to the “BOP-on-BOP” solution, simply connecting a new blowout preventer to the top of the failed preventer and slowly shutting off the flow of oil.
By raising the rupture disk failure concern, he said, BP argued incorrectly that installing the second preventer would cause the underground formation to rupture, which would threaten the ability of drilling a second relief well.
Federal officials, including Chu and McNutt, not knowing the accurate cause of the failure, agreed with BP’s logic and delayed what was installed as the ultimate solution to the blowout in July, Perkin said.
BP’s attorneys used Perkin to introduce evidence they hope will show the government actually was using its own data to make those decisions, though.
They pointed to a memo from McNutt on May 25, 2010, when she headed the government’s flow rate technical group, as an example. “Multiple lines of scientific evidence agree that the release is at least 14,000 to 20,000 barrels of oil per day,” the memo said.
But Perkin said he believes the memo was aimed at public opinion, not deciding whether the top kill was to be performed, and cited its next sentence: “We believe that a statement like this will be much more helpful to emergency responders than the current 5,000 barrels per day, is honest, and yet is not as alarmist as the 70,000 bbls that has been picked up by the media and is demonstrably wrong,” the memo said.
Perkin said he believes all the information in the memo was based on the lower estimates BP gave to the government.
BP’s attorney tried again with a memo from Carol Browner, then energy and climate science adviser to President Barack Obama, to White House staffers – including deputy chief of staff Jim Messina and political adviser David Axelrod – explaining that the BOP-on-BOP method had been rejected after the top kill failure.
“Our scientists have determined that the risks are too great to shut the well in from the top,” the memo said.
Again, Perkin said the memo reflected BP’s advice to the government, rather than independent research by government officials leading to its decision against BOP-on-BOP.
The trial continues Tuesday with more expert testimony from witnesses called by the aligned parties.
Staff writer Mark Waller contributed to this report.