BP's missteps delayed its 2010 spill response, trial witnesses say

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Oct. 7, 2013 edition.)

As the Macondo trial's Phase Two began in U.S. District Court in New Orleans Monday, with Judge Carl Barbier presiding, BP contractors Transocean and Halliburton were aligned with the plaintiffs, including Louisiana and Alabama, against BP. The aligned parties contend BP was grossly negligent in responding to the spill that followed the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion. They claim the well could have been capped that May, instead of the following July.

Phase Two includes the federal government's consolidated, civil action against BP and Anadarko under the Clean Water Act and Oil Pollution Act.

Phase Two is divided into a couple of parts. The first segment, which lasted four days and wrapped up Thursday, was about source control, Barbier said. "This involves evidence and testimony as to what occurred at the time the Deepwater Horizon sank, the riser fractured and oil began to escape, until 87 days later when the well was capped," he said. In Phase Two's first segment, Barbier allowed each side--the aligned parties versus BP--15 hours of testimony.

Starting on Oct. 7, the second part of Phase Two--the quantification segment--begins. In it, the parties are the United States versus BP and Anadarko. "I've allowed twelve days, a total of 45 hours for each side, for quantification," Barbier said. Penalties won't be assessed in Phase Two but will be the subject of a later trial.

Attorney Brian Barr, in his opening statement Monday for the aligned parties, said BP's spill-response plan before the Macondo accident was almost 600-pages with just one page on source control. That page said if the spill's source couldn't be controlled by the operator or remote means, BP would assemble experts to respond. BP's plan was simply a plan to plan, and "responders were left to make things up on the fly as oil gushed into the Gulf," Barr said.

Barr said the feds didn't have the know-how to shut the well. "That expertise was expected to rest with the operator BP," he said. The government wasn't aware that BP had neither the experience nor procedures in place to stop the flow, however. Barr said if BP had been prepared for a possible blowout, the well could have been capped within days or weeks, not months.

In his opening statement, Brad Brian on behalf of Transocean and the aligned parties, said BP misrepresented the flow rate in April and May of 2010, delaying the well's capping. BP repeatedly said 5,000 barrels a day was its best flow estimate and withheld documents showing much higher rates. "The consequences of BP's misrepresentations and concealment were bad decisions, a false diagnosis of why the top kill source-control method they used failed, and tragically the rejection in May of an alternative strategy--the blowout preventer on blowout preventer that was ready to be installed and would have capped this well long before it was capped," Brian said.

A top kill attempt, which involved pumping drilling mud to stop the well's flow, failed in late May 2010. A BOP is a safety device used to seal a well.

In January of this year, BP pleaded guilty to withholding internal documents containing flow estimates that were well above 5,000 barrels per day, Brian noted. During the spill, BP modelers sent possible flow rates of 110,000 barrels per day and higher to their bosses in BP, he said. On May 10, 2010, BP edited a chart in order to show a much lower, worst-case scenario of the flow, and inserted a most likely rate of 5,000 barrels a day.

"On May 16, 2010, the Unified Command approved BP's recommendation to do the top kill," Brian said. The Unified Command included the U.S. Coast Guard and a number of other federal agencies, along with BP and Transocean. "But within hours of that decision, they learned from their outside consultant, Dr. Ole Rygg at Add Energy, that the top kill procedure they were contemplating wouldn't work if the well was flowing at 15,000 barrels per day or higher," Brian said. Add Energy, based in Norway with an office in Houston, was contracted by BP to assist in well control.

Even after the top kill effort failed in May, BP still wouldn't admit the size of its flow rate, Brian said. BP's false flow statements shaped the recovery effort and greatly delayed the well's capping, he said.

In his opening statement Monday, Don Godwin for Halliburton and the aligned parties, also said BP's lowballing of the well's flow and its lack of preparation for a blowout delayed the capping process.

Mike Brock, representing BP, in his opening noted that 700 engineers and technicians worked in the company's Houston center in two shifts a day during the spill. "All of these people were dedicated to getting this well shut in as quickly as possible," he said. "It defies common sense to say that we would delay by two months the shut-in because we didn't want to say something about why top kill had failed."

Underlying its spill response, BP had several guiding principles, Brock said. "First, don't take any action that makes matters worse," he said. "You're going to see when we look at the decision about BOP-on-BOP, versus top kill versus other options like collection, that this is a significant overriding principle." The other principles were "work options in parallel; leave no stone unturned; spare no expense," he said.

Brock said the 5,000 barrel-per-day flow estimate came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Everyone understood that there was significant uncertainty that went with that number," he said. Federal scientists and technicians embedded in BP's Houston center were working closely with BP. "They were talking at the water cooler," he said. "They were openly sharing data at that center."

Brock said the feds weren't misled and knew the flow rate could be over 15,000 barrels per day before the top-kill procedure was attempted.

"Ultimately, the capping stack was utilized to seal the well on July 15, 2010," Brock said. "BP did not misrepresent flow rate in a way that caused a delay of the shut-in. It made reasonable engineering decisions based on what was known at each step along the way, keeping in mind the principles of do no harm, work all options in parallel, leave no stone unturned. That's not fraud. That's not gross negligence." A capping stack is a device used to shut off the flow from a well.

On Monday, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology professor John Wilson, under cross examination from Hariklia Karis on behalf of BP, discussed some of the problems with BP's having underestimated its flow. "If the flow rate is sufficiently high, such that the momentum kill doesn't work, that also suggests the flow rate is sufficiently high because there's not a lot of obstructions in the blowout preventer," Wilson said. "And if there are fewer obstructions in the BOP, there's less chance that the junk shot would succeed just by a matter of physics." Junk shots, something BP tried in late May 2010, involve injecting golf balls, shredded tires and other material to obstruct the flow of oil.

Rob Turlak, who manages subsea engineering and well-control systems for Transocean, worked on a BOP-on-BOP installation plan to cap the well. But it was delayed in May and then shelved in June. Under examination from attorney Luis Li on behalf of Transocean and the aligned parties, Turlak said Tuesday he never got an explanation about why BP scrapped the BOP-on-BOP strategy.

On Tuesday, Texas petroleum engineer Edward Ziegler, an aligned parties expert witness on well control, noted that BP admitted to having spent nothing on research and development for source plans. If the company had developed such plans before the blowout, the flow wouldn't have lasted so long, he said.

"You need a real plan immediately when the event starts," Ziegler said. "You have a well flowing out of control so you don't start having meetings and groups and trying things and different options. You actually have a plan and you immediately do it." He said BP considered various methods, including an initial plan to use a BOP on a BOP. "Then they changed that," he said. BP changed plans about which rigs to use in its well-control operations.

"By the time they put the actual capping device on the well in July of 2010, that was the sixth different device they had started on," Ziegler said. BP could have placed a capping stack on the well on the seafloor in May, monitored pressures and might have closed the well by mid-May, he said. A capping device was readily available on Transocean's Discoverer Enterprise drilling rig but a plan to use it was scrapped, he said.

"I heard the BP gentleman in the opening say there were so many uncertainties and so many unknowns, and that's why BP couldn't do certain things," Ziegler said, referring to Brock's opening comments. But "you have to get the data, and the way to get it is to put the cap on there with control-and-flow equipment and obtain the data," he said. "Instead of worrying about it and fretting and wringing your hands for two months, just do it immediately." He said it was clear in July 2010 that the well had integrity but that could have been learned two months earlier.

On Wednesday, James Dupree, BP's chief operating officer of resource development and technology, testified about how the flow was stopped with a capping stack on July 15, 2010. "We monitored the pressure," he said. "We eventually were convinced that no broach was ongoing. We watched the sea floor so that there was no risk of a broach. Then we rigged up on the well and killed it by pumping mud down. We pumped a large cement slug into the well and cemented the well from the base." That process of installing the stack to cementing the base took 4.77 days.

On Thursday, Iain Adams, managing director of well-engineering firm Norwell in Scotland and BP's expert witness on response to the blowout, said under examination from Hariklia Karis that a need to explore options, consider data and peer reviews, and mitigate risk extended the time it took to kill the well. "If a pre-built capping stack had been installed the way the aligned parties suggested, in a week or a couple of weeks, you would have had to basically ignore the key risks of well integrity and installation vessels," he said. The three-ram stack that killed the well in July 2010 couldn't have been deployed immediately after the blowout because risks had to be considered first, he said.

In testimony Tuesday, U.C. Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea, a catastrophic risk expert, said that before the April 2010 accident BP estimated a Macondo blowout could cost between one hundred million and one billion dollars, while Bea had predicted it would greatly exceed ten billion dollars. end