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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.”
Vessels monitor a oil burn in the area of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the Gulf of Mexico, Tuesday, July 13, 2010. BP officials have placed a containment cap over the leak in hopes that the flow of oil will be diminished. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
President Barack Obama makes a statement after being briefed on the BP oil spill relief efforts in the Gulf Coast region, Friday, June 4, 2010, at Louis Armstrong International New Orleans Airport in Kenner, La. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Protesters gather outside of the BP offices in San Francisco on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 to demonstrate against the Gulf oil rig disaster. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
This image from video provided by BP PLC early Sunday morning, June 13, 2010 shows oil continuing to pour out at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard has demanded that BP step up its efforts to contain the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of the weekend, telling the British oil giant that its slow pace in stopping the spill is becoming increasingly alarming as the disaster fouled the coastline in ugly new ways Saturday. (AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
This image from video provided by BP PLC early Sunday morning, June 20, 2010 shows oil continuing to gush millions of gallons a day, from the broken wellhead, at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. (AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
GULF SHORES, AL - JUNE 08: Workers pick up oil patches and tar that washed up on the beach at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on June 8, 2010 in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Early reports indicate that BP's latest plan to stem the flow of oil from the site of the Deepwater Horizon incident may be having some success. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Oil floats in the Gulf of Mexico near Orange Beach, Alabama, U.S., on Friday, June 18, 2010. The BP Plc oil spill, which began when the leased Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, is gushing as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, the government said. Photographer: Kari Goodnough/Bloomberg
Oil cleanup workers hired by BP pick up oil on the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., Friday, July 2, 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident is expected to come ashore over the July 4th weekend. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
In this image taken from video provided by BP PLC at 18:17 CDT, a new containment cap, top, is lowered over the broken wellhead at the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Monday, July 12, 2010. Deep-sea robots swarmed around BP's ruptured oil well Monday in a delicately choreographed effort to attach the tighter-fitting cap that could finally stop crude from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico nearly three months into the crisis. (AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
This combo made from images taken from video provided by BP PLC shows oil flowing from two of three valves on the new 75-ton cap atop the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico at 17:04 CDT Wednesday, July 14, 2010, left, and the top of the cap at 17:56 CDT on Thursday, July 15, minutes after the flow of oil was choked off. BP vice president Kent Wells said the oil stopped flowing into the water at 14:25 CDT after engineers gradually dialed back the amount of crude escaping through the last of three vents in the cap, an 18-foot-high metal stack of pipes and valves.(AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
The view from an approaching helicopter shows the armada of drillships and other vessels surrounding the site of the blown out BP well in the Gulf of Mexico about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Credit Brett Clanton / Chronicle
Oil gushes from a valve atop the failed blowout preventer (BOP) at the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill site in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, U.S., in an image captured by the Skandi remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) camera at 7:35 a.m. Central Standard Time (CST) on Tuesday, July 13, 2010. BP Plc installed a new cap on its leaking Gulf of Mexico oil well and will start testing today whether this will stop the gusher while work continues on a permanent plug. Source: BP Plc via Bloomberg
EDITOR'S NOTE: EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO SALES.
GULF OF MEXICO, LA - JULY 27: (EDITORS NOTE: Distortion caused by heat.) Ships assist in clean up and containment near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill July 27, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. Work continues to put a permanent plug on the well which has leaked an estimated three to five million barrels of oil. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Hairdresser Karen Jackson wears a t-shirt that reads "We've been BPeed on!" on the front of the shirt and "Gulf Oil Disaster 2010-??" on the back Saturday, July 3, 2010, in Orange Beach, Ala. Jackson says she is worried about the effect the spill is having on her community and what will happen if local business continues to falter. "I would hate to have to leave this place. We love it here." She said her business is way off what it should be for the season, "down here we make all of our money in the summer," she says. Her husband's work as an electrician has dried up she says, so he has signed on to work cleanup for BP. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )
A driver rolls down the highway with messages such as "$ave the Gulf Coa$t" and "Tony Hayward C.E. O of B.P. Give us out Live Back" while driving Sunday, June 27, 2010, in Pensacola, Florida. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle )
This still image from a live BP video feed shows a view from a submersible while checking the integrity of the well head on August 3, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. BP prepared Tuesday to plug the worst oil leak in history, although the Gulf of Mexico region will be counting the environmental and economic costs for years, perhaps decades, to come. Already delayed by a week due to Tropical Storm Bonnie, the long-awaited "static kill" was put off again at the last-minute when a leak was discovered on Monday in the cap that has been sealing the runaway well since July 15. US spill chief Thad Allen said the leak had been stopped overnight and that the operation to ram in heavy drilling fluids, known as mud, would commence as soon as "injectivity tests" had given the procedure the all-clear. AFP PHOTO / BP == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE / NO SALES / NO MARKETING / NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN == (Photo credit should read HO/AFP/Getty Images)(Photo Credit should Read /AFP/Getty Images)
In this image taken from video provided by BP PLC at 12:23 a.m. EDT, Saturday Sept. 4, 2010 Aug. 3, 2010 shows the blowout preventer that failed to stop oil from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico being raised to the surface. The blowout preventer wasn't expected to reach the surface until Saturday, at which point government investigators will take possession of it. (AP Photo/BP PLC) NO SALES
DAUPHIN ISLAND, AL. | JULY 4, 2010 : A cleanup worker, wearing a protective coverall and carrying a small scoop, punctuates an otherwise typical holiday beach scene as patrols the beach looking for tar balls on Independence Day. While exact numbers are elusive, tourist business along the Gulf Coast all reported feeling the sting of lost income from a noticeable dip in tourism this summer following the Deepwater Horizon spill.
GULF OF MEXICO | JUNE 26, 2010 : Streaks of oil are seen on the surface of the water near the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The amount of oil spilled, and what happened to the oil remains in debate, but in August, the Department of Energy and United States Geological Survey announced, that it estimated a total of 4.9 million barrels of oil had been released from the BP Deepwater Horizon well.
GRAND ISLE, LA. | JULY 15, 2010 : Oil containment boom floats just off the pier as fishermen cast lines near the bridge leading to the island after sun sets on the first full day of fishing after a ban on sport fishing was lifted. Commercial fishing remained closed, but happy recreational fishermen flocked to the water on a beautiful evening. Most were BP contractors working on the cleanup. One was Bobby Walker of Houma, La., who said he had been coming to the island to fish for over 30 years and praised the great fishing and natural beauty of the island. "But who would have ever thought I would be here all summer working on the oil spill."