BP fires back: Gulf spill caused by multiple failures, not only its own

NEW ORLEANS — BP countered scathing attacks on its actions and motivations before the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill by insisting Monday as a civil trial over the disaster got underway that the accident was the result of multiple failures, not only its own.

BP lawyer Robert C. “Mike” Brock said in his opening statement in federal court in New Orleans that mistakes by BP, Transocean and Halliburton contributed to the disaster. He specifically cited maintenance failures by Transocean and cement failures by Halliburton.

“That bad slurry that was pumped to the bottom of that well was what caused this well initially to flow,” Brock said of the cement.

Earlier, lawyers for the U.S. government, plaintiffs suing BP and its partners and Gulf states affected by the spill took turns pointing fingers at BP. The company’s partners on the doomed well job also took jabs at BP.

BP was fueled by financial pressure driven by promises it had made to its investors when it chose speed over safety and rushed its undersea Gulf  well to completion at the time of the disaster, the lawyers said.

“BP put profits before people, profits before safety and profits before the environment,” Justice Department lawyer Mike Underhill told U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier at the bench trial.

Plaintiffs attorney James Roy said BP was under pressure to drive efficiency.

“It chose to do so by spending fewer days drilling its wells,” Roy said.

Read more: BP’s potential oil spill liability cut by $3.4 billion

BP was more than $50 milion over budget and was behind schedule at the time its Macondo well blew out some 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, leading to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. At the time, it also had promised its investors a certain level of dividends and was trying to meet the promise, Roy said.

Roy’s strategy set the stage for the tenor of the case against BP and its partners on the rig. He also cited numerous failures by rig owner Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton that he said led to the catastrophe.

But in an effort to distance itself from BP, Transocean lawyer Brad Brian said his company and its rig crew were victims as well. “They put their trust into BP and they were betrayed,” Brian said.

Halliburton took jabs at BP as well.

“This case is about the loss of well control and BP’s attempts to blame Halliburton and others for BP’s misconduct,” Halliburton lawyer Don Godwin said in his opening statement.

Bolstering the case against BP, Underhill said in his opening statement that BP and its partners made the “incomprehensible decision” to move forward with the well job after a test it conducted two hours before the well blew out showed it was unsafe to continue. BP has admitted it misinterpreted the negative pressure test.

“The evidence in this trial will show that despite BP’s attempts to shift the blame to other parties in this lawsuit, the primary fault for the disaster lies with BP,” Underhill said.

He said a long series of missteps and reckless decisions by BP together “represent willful misconduct.”

His voice breaking with emotion at times, Underhill said BP’s well-site leaders on the rig should have shut in the well.

“We could have avoided all of this,” he said.

Underhill added, “If we are looking for a snapshot that shows how and why BP is the primary cause for this disaster we point to a corporate culture of disregard for safety.”

Roy said the failure to properly observe the flow of gas inside the well was a “gross and extreme departure” from normal procedures.

Roy said BP and Transocean should have caught that gas kick and shut in the well before it burst open.

He said the kick was so obvious, one worker later said in a deposition that it was something, “My dad would have caught.”

“Why did this terrible tragedy happen?” Roy asked, “That’s why we’re gathered.”

Roy said Transocean had a history of poor safety culture and had not maintained the Deepwater Horizon rig properly. He said that in the nine years prior to the disaster that it had been in service, the rig had not been returned to port a single time for maintenance.

But Brian said in his opening statement that while his company made mistakes, BP bears the ultimate responsibility for the disaster.

“These men in the drill crew made the mistake of putting too much trust in BP and they paid with that mistake with their lives,” Brian said.

Brian said that BP’s two well-site leaders on the rig should have shut in the well after the negative pressure test. Instead, Brian said, BP well-site leader Donald Vidrine went onto the rig floor and into the drill shack and told the three Transocean rig crew members in the room to proceed with removing the drilling mud from the well, which was the “only thing at that point that was standing between those men and a blowout.”

“He left those men in the drill shack. He never saw those men alive again,” Brian said.

Vidrine and another BP well-site leader face manslaughter charges in the case and are awaiting trial.

Brock, the BP lawyer, said too much emphasis was being put on the negative pressure test failure. “That is not new news,” he said.

As for Halliburton, Roy said the company had the duty to make sure the cement it used to seal the well was up to the job, and he said it failed.

However, Godwin, the Halliburton lawyer, said his company believes the cement design “was a good design” and that the real issue with the cement is that BP should have verified through a certain test called a cement bond log that the cement was secure but proceeded without confirmation.

“BP was saving time and money by not doing it and it proved to be a mistake that we are all having to live with by being here today,” Godwin said.

Spreading around the blame, Roy also took a shot at Cameron, the company that made the blowout preventer that failed to stop the flow of oil to the sea.

“The BOP in other words did not function without fail as Cameron’s director of engineering said it must,” Roy said.

Roy accused BP and others of gross negligence.

“The evidence will prove the Deepwater Horizon was unseaworthy on April 20, 2010, and had been for many months if not years before and BP and Transocean both knew it,” he said.

Billions of dollars were at stake as a federal civil trial over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill started nearly three years after the deadly disaster.

Opening statements were expected to last the entire day in the maritime trial of the century as BP defends itself against damages sought by the U.S. government and states affected by the spill.

Since the Macondo well blew out and the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 workers, BP has already spent more than $24 billion on costs related to the disaster and compensating victims.

It also has agreed to pay $4.5 billion in penalties to resolve criminal charges and related securities violations, and it expects to pay out $8.5 billion as part of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit with thousands of spill victims. That is up from its initial estimate of $7.8 billion. People who have opted out of that deal have preserved their claims in the civil case.

Those figures pale in comparison to what the company faces if the federal government and Gulf states have their way at the trial. They will try to prove that BP acted with gross negligence, a finding that if found by the judge would allow for the highest civil penalties to be imposed.

According to a recent BP filing, the cumulative amount of economic damage claims being asserted by the Gulf states and local communities is roughly $34 billion. That figure does not include federal Clean Water Act claims or natural resources damage claims. BP faces a maximum Clean Water Act penalty of $17.6 billion.

BP has said repeatedly that it has been willing to settle the case, but only on terms it believes are reasonable.

With a last-minute settlement deal to avoid the trial in federal court in New Orleans elusive, Barbier is serving as ringmaster over the proceedings. The parties still continue to talk, and a settlement could be reached after the trial starts.

More than six hours have been set aside for opening statements in a trial over the deadly rig explosion in the Gulf that resulted in the nation’s worst offshore oil spill. Barbier said the first live witness in the case will take the stand Tuesday.

During the first phase of the trial, expected to last up to three months, Barbier will hear evidence on the causes of the well blowout and will determine how to allocate fault, which may or may not include percentages of blame.

The second phase will address the amount of oil that spilled.

Read more: Feds: BP its own worst enemy in civil trial

At some point during the trial or after, Barbier also is expected to determine if the disaster resulted from gross negligence.

Further proceedings could determine how much in punitive damages should be assessed, and separate trials could determine damage awards for individuals and businesses that opted out of a multibillion-dollar settlement last year between BP and private parties claiming economic or health damages.

It’s a lengthy process. It’s also complicated, as even the companies disagree on the exact course the trial will take.

That’s not surprising because there never has been a trial quite like this.

A lot will happen the first week, including testimony from key witnesses and video presentation of former BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s deposition in the civil case. Outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu also was deposed in the case, though it is unclear if he will be called to testify.

Parties include plaintiffs’ attorneys who represent individuals and businesses affected by the spill, the Justice Department, several Gulf states, well owner BP, rig owner Transocean, cement contractor Halliburton and blowout preventer maker Cameron.

BP owned the well that blew out a mile beneath the sea on April 20, 2010. It also was leasing from Transocean the deepwater rig that exploded and sank.

Gulf Spill Master Witness List

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Read ongoing FuelFix coverage of the legal trials surrounding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill:
Guilty: Transocean convicted in Gulf of Mexico oil spill (Feb. 14)
BP feud with US government over Gulf oil spill heats up (Feb. 13)
BP displays new Gulf of Mexico safety system (Feb. 12)
Documents: BP well-site leaders faced earlier indictment in spill case (Feb. 8)
BP loses some federal contracts due to spill (Feb. 5)
BP completes $2.4B sale of Texas City refinery (Feb. 1)
Guilty: BP admits to causing deaths in spill disaster (Jan. 29)
Some parties appeal spill settlement ruling (Jan. 25)
BP, Justice Department say Gulf plea deal fair and appropriate (Jan. 16)
Judge gets sentence recommendation for BP (Jan. 14)
Rig victim’s widow says Gulf disaster caused ‘inferno of grief’ (Jan. 11)
Transocean to pay government $1.4B to settle fed’s spill claims (Jan. 3)
Government accuses BP of being evasive on Gulf spill flow rate (Dec. 28)
Judge approves BP class action settlement (Dec. 21)