BP and the U.S. government portrayed in public a united front as a runaway well spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But they privately sought to withhold potentially critical information from each other, possibly slowing efforts to solve the crisis, according to new testimony.
Last month’s closed-door testimony by Marcia McNutt, head of the U.S. Geological Survey, in the ongoing litigation over the disaster could complicate a Justice Department probe that has focused on whether BP and its partners obstructed justice by lying to investigators.
“It could have impeded the investigation, and both sides may share some blame in that regard,” said Blaine LeCesne, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who has followed the case.
Motivations aren’t clear from transcripts the Houston Chronicle obtained of McNutt’s two-day deposition in New Orleans, but the British oil giant’s pocketbook and the government’s ability to punish the responsible parties remain on the line more than two years later.
To date, only a low-level former BP engineer has been charged with a crime, accused of deleting text messages exchanged after the disaster. And the government has yet to assess billions of dollars in expected fines and penalties for the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
No real ‘partnership’
“I didn’t feel a partnership, you know, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to solve the flow rate problem. Let’s sit down and put the best minds from BP and the best minds of government and work this out,’?” testified McNutt, who headed a government team tasked with determining how much oil was spilling from BP’s Macondo well. “There was this tenseness. It was almost kind of a chill in the room when flow rate issues came up.”
Knowing how fast the oil was flowing was a key to evaluating possible ways to stop it. The transcript shows the tight-fitting capping stack that ultimately closed the well was available long before BP used it, but the company first went through a series of other fixes that failed.
Oil flowed for almost three months, totaling nearly 5 million barrels by government estimates – an average daily flow of more than 57,000 barrels. BP disputes that figure but hasn’t publicly stated its own.
“Were you aware when you began working on the Macondo well in May (2010) that the capping stack was ready to go and was ready to be installed?” a lawyer asked McNutt, according to the deposition transcript.
“I was not aware,” she responded.
“Would that be the type of information that the government would have wanted to know?” the lawyer asked.
“All information is good information,” McNutt responded.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on McNutt’s deposition. BP also declined to comment.
Since BP’s undersea well blew out in the Gulf off Louisiana and the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers, several disclosures have suggested that some BP officials knew early on that more oil was spilling than the company was acknowledging publicly.
But McNutt’s testimony, and documents presented during her deposition, depict a greater internal struggle and indicate that BP engineers and outside contractors warned BP executives that they may have been grossly underestimating the rate.
On May 21, 2010, according to documents presented, a Halliburton official involved in the top kill – an unsuccessful early effort to stop the flow of oil – told BP officials that the flow rate was at least 30,000 barrels per day, not the 5,000 barrel rate BP was reporting then.
In a previously disclosed email six days earlier, Mike Mason, a vice president in BP’s exploration and production technology division, told Andy Inglis, then BP’s chief of global exploration and production, that BP should be cautious about standing behind a 5,000 barrel per day figure.
He wrote that the company’s own modeling showed the well could be spewing up to 100,000 barrels per day.
McNutt testified that no one at BP provided her either of those analyses and that BP officials stood by the lower flow-rate numbers well into June.
“They did not articulate anything differently to me,” she testified. “It seems to me, from the documents you’ve showed me, that they may have believed differently, privately.”
The testimony shows that discussions about not sharing information cut both ways.
McNutt was asked about an email exchange on May 23, 2010, with Kate Moran, an oceanographer advising the Obama administration during the oil spill, who questioned copying some of the flow rate team’s emails to BP.
“I want to be sure that I understand what does and does not get communicated to BP,” Moran asked.
McNutt responded in an email that she wasn’t aware the emails were being copied to BP.
“It is certainly NOT part of DOI’s communication strategy!” McNutt wrote, referring to the Department of Interior. “Thanks for pointing that out.”
Asked why the government would not want to share its internal deliberations on the flow rate analysis, McNutt testified that to do so would “confuse the issue.”
In a May 19, 2010, email described in the transcript, McNutt’s predecessor in leading the government’s flow rate technical group, David Moore, suggested to other government officials that information flow only one way.
“The only role of BP in the exercise is in providing access to data,” Moore wrote.
Law professor LeCesne said BP’s culpability could be mitigated if “the information the government was withholding in some way affected BP’s ability to respond on its part.”
What motivated the information-hoarding isn’t clear from McNutt’s testimony.
Lack of trust
What is clear is that even as BP and the government were publicly insisting they were working together, there was underlying distrust.
An internal BP email on May 27, 2010, that was previously disclosed and is mentioned in the deposition instructs BP employees not to share data from the top kill operation “outside the circle of trust.”
Asked about the email in her deposition, McNutt testified, “It doesn’t appear there was anyone from the government in the circle of trust.”