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BP ‘Played It Fast and Loose,’ Expert Testifies

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - An expert testified for the Department of Justice on Thursday that the cementing of the Macondo oil well showed at least nine "risks" that combined to create the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The errors "virtually assured that the cement would not form a barrier in the well," Glen Benge told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.

Barbier is presiding over the bench trial to apportion responsibility for the disaster and determine its cause. The United States and five Gulf states are seeking billions of dollars for Clean Water Act violations and damages to natural resources. A second trial will begin in September to determine how much oil spilled.

Benge concluded in his 2011 expert report that the cement Halliburton provided for the Macondo well was inadequately designed for that well, did not perform as expected, and was improperly set in the well.

As a result, the cement failed to seal. In the absence of a seal, natural gas flowed up the sides of the well and ignited onboard the rig, causing the explosion and fire that killed11 people on April 20, 2010.

On Wednesday, Benge testified that when a negative pressure test was run 18 hours after the cement was pumped into the Macondo well, the cement had not yet set.

The purpose of a negative pressure test is to reduce pressure in the wellbore, to ensure that the casing and cement that separates the wellbore from hydrocarbons can continue to do so without leaks, even at lower pressure.

Much testimony this week described a corporate culture at BP of putting profits over safety, with lax attitudes about regulations and tests such as the negative pressure test, whose results are simple to determine and whose negative consequences can be fatal, as they were in this case.

Testimony frequently emphasized the high risks of the Macondo well, which Deepwater Horizon employees called "well from hell."

In cross-examining Benge on Thursday, Halliburton attorney Gavin Hill asked about risks associated with cementing and deepwater drilling.

"Would you agree with me that a perfectly designed cement job and a perfectly executed cement job sometimes fail to achieve zonal isolation?" Hill asked.

"I would agree with that statement, sir," Benge said.

"And in fairness, the converse is also true, a non-optimized cement design and perhaps some hiccups in the execution, that cement job also could achieve zonal isolation, correct?"

"Yes, sir, it can," said Benge.

"And you can use simulated downhole conditions in testing of the slurry, correct?"

"Yes, sir," said Benge.

"But in the end, what we're doing is predicting what's going to happen three miles down, correct?"

"That is correct."

"And I think, as you indicated yesterday, we're pumping the slurry three miles below the surface and trying to hit the target the size of your dinner plate, correct?" asked Hill.

"Yes, sir."

Clean Water Act fines alone could range from $1,100 to $4,300 per barrel of oil spilled, with the high figure applicable if BP is found to have been grossly negligent. Most estimates put the spill around 4.9 million barrels, though BP will not be fined for the 800,000 barrels it managed to confine.

BP owned and operated the Macondo well and leased the Deepwater Horizon rig, which was owned and operated by Transocean. Halliburton did the cement work.

Witness testimony in the first two weeks of the trial, perhaps expectedly, involved some finger-pointing.

During cross-examination, Halliburton attorney Hill asked Benge: "I think you said it very well in your report ... and I may be paraphrasing here, but tell me if you agree with this statement: 'Cement must be carefully tested by an operator before it can be relied upon as a barrier.'"

"Absolutely," Benge said.

"Now, just to kind of connect the dots, that is why the negative pressure test at Macondo was so important, correct?"

Earlier Thursday, BP attorney Matt Regan sought confirmation of the opposite from Benge: "It's on the contractor to report to the operator on how the job went, how we did, and how it was executed, correct?" Regan asked.

"That is correct," Benge said.

Barring a settlement, the trial is expected to last three months.

In his opening statements last week, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said, "The disaster has damaged Louisiana's people, its economy and its ecology. But most importantly, this disaster continues in various forms, including continued pollution, higher unemployment and the need for increased social services, and today, less than 30 miles from the door of this courthouse, your honor, over 212 miles of Louisiana coast are being polluted and continue to be oiled."

Alan R. Huffman, a petroleum geophysicist who testified for the government and for private plaintiffs last week, called BP's drilling violations "egregious."

Huffman said BP consistently misreported to the Minerals Management Service.

He said BP drilled the Macondo well too quickly and without using all of the necessary supplies, to cut costs. He said it was sloppy in performing pressure integrity tests that are essential to evaluating cement jobs and testing mud weight.

"They played it fast and loose with their pressure integrity tests," Huffman testified.

"Drilling ahead was not only unsafe," Huffman said, "it violates every standard for drilling that I can think of. It was truly egregious."

He added: "They were drilling without permission from the MMS. You don't do that. You don't drill without permission from the government."

Nonetheless, on Tuesday, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, urged the federal government to lift a ban that prevents BP from securing sensitive federal contracts, including new oil leases in the Gulf. Landrieu called the moratorium imposed last November by the Environmental Protection Agency "double jeopardy."

"Double jeopardy" refers to BP's agreement late last year to settle criminal charges for $4.5 billion.

"I'm furious and strongly opposed to the EPA's authority for suspension and disbarment," Landrieu said. "I'm angry that this agency would put a business in a situation of what amounts to double jeopardy," according to a Wednesday article in the Monroe (La.) News Star newspaper.

The EPA said its suspension of new BP contracts was based on "BP's lack of business integrity as demonstrated by the company's conduct with regard to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, explosion, oil spill, and response," the News Star reported.

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