BP Did Its Best Given Magnitude of Oil Spill Unknowns, Witnesses Say
NEW ORLEANS (CN) - After spending a week on how BP tried to seal the Macondo Prospect after the well broke in 2010, the trial today turns to the total amount of oil spilled.
Concluding the second phase of a three-part trial, the Department of Justice and BP will each argue their case for how much oil ultimately made its way into the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is presiding over the federal litigation without a jury.
Attorneys for BP say the well took almost three months to cap because BP and others involved had to contend with many potentially hazardous unknowns.
Iain Adams, an expert for the oil giant, told the court Thursday that, "very often, it's the unknowns that drive your project forward rather than the knowns."
This testimony echoed the sentiment that drove much of the proceedings during the first week of trial.
BP says that it was gathering oil-flow estimates from the beginning, but that these estimates were largely worst-case scenario and inaccurate because it did not known enough of the conditions influencing flow rate, such as the size of the hole in the well, as well as pressure and temperature.
By contrast, plaintiffs say the well took so long to cap because BP was unprepared or worse. They also accuse BP of hiding oil-flow-rate estimates, offering government officials only the very lowest figure obtained, 5,000 barrels a day, simply because the oil giant got caught in its own lie.
Once 5,000 barrels per day was given as the company's "best guess" estimate, BP had to attempt the "Top Kill" method to cap the well despite its knowledge Top Kill would fail if the flow rate was too high, the plaintiffs say. They claim that this was surely the case since calculations in BP's internal emails place the flow rate somewhere around 20 times the figure given to the government.
Adams, managing director of the Norwell drilling company, testified Thursday that BP's attempt at clogging the well with debris as part of the "junk shot" component of the Top Kill had the potential to work no matter how many barrels per day were gushing from the well.
BP eventually discarded its plan to place another blowout preventer atop the failed one from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, but the plan could not have worked any earlier than the Top Kill, Adams added. Sealing the well with a capping stack, as was finally done on July 15, 2010, was BP's best bet, he said.
Dr. Adam Ballard, a BP employee who helped with source control during the oil spill, also testified last week. He said that, with regard to gauging flow rate through hydraulic modeling, "there was definitely some information known to some extent, but due to the uncertainties and the things that you didn't know, hydraulic modeling could tell you the most that [the well] could flow, but couldn't inform you anywhere from zero to that range using hydraulic modeling alone."
Ballard told the court Wednesday that the 5,000 barrel per day estimate BP used actually came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
He said the purpose of the hydraulic modeling in which he had a hand during the oil spill was not to assess flow rate.
"Neither BP nor any other party had the tools in April and May 2010 necessary to reliably estimate daily discharge rates from the wells using hydraulic modeling," Ballard said.
He described BP's broken well as the "Macondo situation" because of the numerous "uncertainties" that existed: "uncertain parameters" that prevented an accurate picture of the well, what the flow path was, whether riser pipe was broken, how deep was the kink in the riser and so on.
"If you don't know the flow path you don't know how to build a model of what the flow looks like," Ballard said, using flow path as just one example of variables that were unknown.
"Uncertainty," he said, "absolutely' made hydraulic modeling impossible.
Earlier in the trial John Wilson, a hydrology and modeling expert who reviewed BP's emails, reports, memos and depositions, testified that BP began conducting research to obtain flow rates almost immediately after the April 20, 2010, explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Wilson said he found evidence of BP tampering with its own projections to obtain data that would reflect its "best guess" estimate of 5,000 barrels of oil per day.
The 5,000 estimate was the lowest Wilson encountered during his research, he said.
Transocean engineer Robert Turlak testified Tuesday the Macondo well could have been capped much sooner had BP had a capping stack on hand.
Though this is now a new requirement for drilling companies, Turlak said he was not aware of any drilling company that just happened to have a capping stack at the time.
Turlak had been on a committee during the oil spill that worked on furthering a well-capping method known as BOP-on-BOP that was later scrapped.
BOP-on-BOP was a plan to stack the blowout preventer from another drilling rig onto Deepwater Horizon to activate that rig's faulty blowout preventer, Turlak said.
The blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon was 50 feet high and 360 tons.
Witnesses for BP later in the week testified the BOP-on-BOP option presented too much risk to well integrity because it was unknown how large the orifice in the broken well was or how stable was the seafloor.
Robin Greenwald, an attorney representing plaintiffs and aligned parties, conducted a voir dire on Tuesday of Dr. Robert Bea, an expert in management of catastrophic risk.
Bea testified that BP management "knowingly ignored" safety-management mitigations that would have prevented blowouts.
The Macondo was known to be a difficult well, and BP's own drilling and operations practice guide required BP to prepare a well-specific source control guide for this reason, but BP did not have one, Bea added.
He noted that Tony Hayward, who was chief engineering operator of BP at the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, later testified that BP did not have a plan in place for what to do in case of a well blowout until weeks into the oil spill.
But BP knew at least a decade before the oil spill that a blowout preventer would not be able to stop a flowing well, Bea said.
"BP engineers had specifically addressed this question," Bea said of the blowout preventer. "Remarkably, they considered the [Deepwater] Horizon" in a disaster model.
He added that "the question was, can we close the rams with ROV [via BOP] and shut in the well? The answer is, remarkably, a short answer: No."
None of BP's top officials at the time of the spill had training in deepwater blowouts, the expert continued.
Based on a review of BP documents, Bea said his opinion was that BP had spent no money on research and development related to source-control technology prior to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. He also noted that BP officials acknowledged this when asked.
"Consistently, the BP parties admit that they had not allocated, budgeted, approved, distributed nor spent funds researching, testing, designing, or planning," Bea testified.
Beginning today, the Department of Justice and BP will each argue their case for how much oil ultimately made its way into the Gulf of Mexico.
Lawyers for BP will attempt to convince the judge that BP for its part was merely "negligent," as opposed to "grossly negligent," to keep down fines under the Clean Water Act.
Such fines are assessed on a per-barrel basis as well as on a valuation of negligence versus gross negligence.
Mere negligence carries a maximum $1,110 fine per barrel of oil spilled, while gross negligence could cost BP as much as $4,300 per barrel.
BP says all told 2.45 million barrels of oil gushed from its broken well. The Department of Justice says the figure is actually 4.2 million barrels. Both figures exclude the nearly 810,000 barrels that were collected during cleanup and which Judge Barbier has agreed not to count.
In all, if Barbier agrees with the Department of Justice's figure for spilled oil, BP could face up to $18 billion dollars in fines for the discharge.
Trial will last three more weeks.
Phase I of the trial, which concluded in April, sought to apportion blame among BP, Transocean and Halliburton for the April 20, 2010, explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig off the coast of Louisiana that killed 11 people and set off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Sabrina Canfield can be reached at email@example.com.