BP defends its well-safety record at Gulf spill trial

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the April 15, 2013 edition.)

Last week, BP executives and others testifying at U.S. District Court in New Orleans said the company was safety conscious when it drilled the Macondo well in the Gulf. Attorneys for the U.K. firm called their first witnesses in the spill trial that began Feb. 25. Judge Carl Barbier is assessing the faults of BP, Transocean and Halliburton in the deadly April 20, 2010 rig explosion that caused the nation's biggest offshore spill. Transocean owned the Deepwater Horizon rig and Halliburton was BP's cement contractor.

The rig exploded three years ago this week, and the Gulf Coast continues to struggle with its repercussions.

Adam "Ted" Bourgoyne, emeritus Louisiana State University petroleum engineering professor, testified Monday and Tuesday. He said that drilling margins, discussed in the trial, aren't relevant to the blowout because the well was finished, with drill pipe run and cemented, before it exploded. The rig's crew had moved into another phase. "They were in, more or less, a routine operation of doing a temporary abandonment procedure when the blowout happened," he said.

A drilling margin is the difference between pore pressure, exerted by oil and gas in an underground formation, and fracture pressure--which can cause the formation to break and absorb drilling mud. Bourgoyne said Tuesday that a drilling margin is safe when mud weight is greater than pore pressure.

He disagreed with much of what drilling-margin expert Alan Huffman said when he testified early in the trial. In late February, Ph.D geophysicist Huffman told the court that "BP, in drilling its well, repeatedly violated the safe drilling margin, in some cases drilling with no margin at all."

Bourgoyne said the Macondo well was drilled with care. BP and the rig's crew "were following normal industry practice in the decisions they were making and how they were moving forward," he said. In the last interval of drilling in April 2010, "they were responding properly to the borehole observations that they were seeing," he said. "The well was talking to them, and from everything I saw they were listening."

He said the crew and BP people did a good job throughout, "except for this temporary abandonment procedure that they had the problems with."

Bourgoyne said the negative pressure test done on the rig on April 20, 2010 was misinterpreted. The test was a shared responsibility of BP and Transocean and was meant to determine whether cementing had sealed any leaks in the well. Test results were interpreted to show the procedure was successful when it wasn't. That led to the mistaken belief that the well was secure.

"They called it a pass when it was a fail," Bourgoyne said. He considered that quite surprising but said it wasn't intentional. "The people on the rig discussed it as a group," he said. "The Transocean people, the BP people got together, talked about it at length. Someone brought up a possible explanation for the drill pipe pressure and everybody bought into it." It was a group decision. "They had a lot of confidence in one another, and once they made the decision, they were convinced they were right," he said.

Asked if the rig's workers were concerned about the safety of others, Bourgoyne said "from what I saw, the rig crew really worked well together. They cared for each other. They were proud. They were a top-of-the-line crew on a top-of-the-line rig. There was a lot of esprit de corps."

On Tuesday, Morten Emilsen, technology vice president at Add Wellflow, a Norwegian firm specializing in multiphase flow modeling, said the Macondo well was under-balanced on April 20, 2010. Emilsen was an external member of the BP team investigating the accident, and he worked out of Houston for awhile. His task was to learn why oil began to flow from the Macondo well and how it flowed. Based on hundreds of his simulations, he concluded that oil entered the well through a leaking casing shoe or the bottom of the oilfield pipe, and flowed upward. The site's prolific reservoir contributed to a rapid unloading of the well when was it left under-balanced and not closed in, he said.

Emilsen also addressed security issues in Houston, where he was told not to print out documents. "We did not want to have many revisions flying around due to the possibility of leakages," he said.

Steve Robinson, BP's Houston-based vice president for Gulf of Mexico wells and a native of Shreveport, La., testified Tuesday afternoon. He participated in BP executive Mark Bly's internal investigation into the accident. After the explosion, Robinson, with a background in petroleum engineering, interviewed the two BP well-site leaders who were on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010. He talked to Donald Vidrine at his home in Lafayette, La. and spoke to Robert Kaluza in Las Vegas, Nevada. In those interviews, Vidrine and Kaluza both said they thought the rig's crew conducted a successful pressure test on the day of the disaster.

Asked about the cause of the April 2010 explosion, Robinson said the section of the Bly report that he worked on found "it was the misinterpretation of the negative test, failure to identify loss of well integrity. It was the fact that hydrocarbons flowed into the well undetected and got into the riser, and the fact that initial well-control actions failed to contain the well."

Eleven workers died in the rig explosion. Vidrine and Kaluza, meanwhile, are the only individuals charged in the accident. They're awaiting trial on eleven counts each of manslaughter.

On Tuesday afternoon, Neil Shaw, BP's senior vice president of global products, testified. A UK native trained as a mechanical engineer, he was in charge of the company's Gulf of Mexico operations for two years ending in late 2009. During his GOM tenure, he let everybody in the region know that "safety was the number one priority in everything we did." He said a safe, reliable operation isn't distracted by incidents and investigations.

Shaw held weekly meetings in Houston with his leadership team in 2008 and 2009. "The first thing we always talked about was safety, and we reviewed every single, safety incident that happened in the last week in the business--both personal safety and process safety." Safety was also stressed in regular BP meetings with key contractors, he said.

Questioned about BP's "every dollar counts" motto, Shaw said it meant spending money wisely. He said a precondition of the motto was that safety was not to be affected. "We wanted to be efficient but the bottom line is we would never compromise safety," he said. In the trial, plaintiffs' attorneys have claimed that BP jeopardized safety to finish drilling its Macondo well, which was behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.

On Thursday, New Orleans native Arthur Zatarain, an electrical engineer, testified that the subsea control system on the rig's blowout preventer couldn't perform on April 10, 2010 because of an improperly wired solenoid valve and a depleted battery. A solenoid is a current-carrying coil of wire. Transocean hadn't followed its own maintenance polices for batteries, Zatarain said. Cameron manufactured the BOP while Transocean was responsible for maintaining the rig and the BOP.

Separately, last Wednesday attorneys for former BP engineer Kurt Mix--who pleaded not guilty a year ago to obstruction of justice for deleting text messages about the company's response to the 2010 spill--claimed federal prosecutors last month added new, "farcical" allegations that he'd deleted voice mails. Mix's attorneys said "the superseding indictment not only fails to mention that AT&T--and not Kurt Mix--might have been responsible for as many as 253 of the 346 voice-mail deletions. But it also misleadingly suggests through use of the passive voice--with 'were deleted'--that Kurt Mix was the culprit behind those deletions."

Phase One of the spill trial could wrap up this week. Judge Barbier will assess the amount of oil spilled in a Phase Two trial, starting in September. He won't rule on negligence and penalties until a third phase, which might begin next January. If BP is found grossly negligent under the Clean Water Act, penalties could be $4,300 per barrel and the company might be forced to pay $17.6 billion.

Three years after the April 2010 disaster, oil and tarmats traced to the Macondo well still appear along Louisiana's coast and the local seafood industry has only partly recovered. end