BP drilled despite unsafe conditions, expert says at Gulf spill trial

Day 1: BP fires back
Day 2: Exec says BP knew blowout was possible

NEW ORLEANS — The undersea well that blew out and led to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history was a kettle waiting to explode weeks before the disaster, a well expert testified Wednesday.

Industry veteran Alan Huffman told the court that British oil giant BP pushed ahead with drilling the Macondo well despite the unsafe conditions and the company’s failure to get permission from U.S. regulators.

The damning testimony came during the third day of a civil trial over the 2010 disaster off Louisiana. It heightened the pressure on BP, with billions of dollars at stake from the outcome of the trial.

“Drilling ahead in this environment was not only unsafe, it violated every standard I know in how wells are drilled in deep waters,” said Huffman, chief technology officer of SIGMA³ Integrated Reservoir Solutions.

BP has said multiple companies were responsible for the disaster. The BP safety official who authored its internal investigation report on the disaster, Mark Bly, took the stand late Wednesday and said there was some difficulty early on in his investigation with getting information from cement contractor Halliburton. Bly said to this day BP never has received from Halliburton a sample of the cement slurry pumped into the Macondo well.

“I think people should share information to help learn about accidents,” he said.

The report issued in September 2010 was a reconstruction of what happened on the Deepwater Horizon rig based on company data and interviews with mostly BP employees.

Meanwhile, Huffman, who has over 30 years of experience in the oil and gas industry and has previously worked for Exxon and Conoco, said BP in drilling the well repeatedly violated the safe drilling margin, in some cases drilling with no margin at all.

“That is not what a prudent operator does,” Huffman said.

Huffman said there were several kicks, or evidence of gas or oil intrusion, in the well during the drilling of the well. The work should have stopped at that point, he said.  But BP decided to continue to drill ahead when it reached 18,220 feet, endangering the lives of the workers on the Deepwater Horizon rig above.

“I would have been very concerned for everyone on that rig,” he said.

On cross-examination by BP lawyer Matt Regan, Huffman acknowledged that he has never worked for the federal regulatory agency that oversees offshore drilling, nor has he ever been on an offshore rig while at sea. He has only been on a rig while it has been at port.

Huffman also said he was hired by the Justice Department to prepare a report in connection with the civil trial.

On Twitter: Live tweets from inside the BP oil spill trial courtroom

Still, Huffman said that based on data and other information he has reviewed BP misrepresented to federal regulators critical information about the well, giving a false impression of what was going on before the blowout.

“You don’t continue to drill without permission from the federal government,” Huffman said.

Plaintiffs attorneys and the Justice Department have accused BP of sacrificing safety to cut costs.

They sought to make that connection with earlier testimony Wednesday from a former drilling operations official for BP. He said in a videotaped deposition played at the trial that BP management put “tremendous pressure” on workers in the Gulf to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in costs before the spill.

Kevin Lacy, who resigned just months before the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and Macondo well blowout, said in the deposition that he was given performance targets that demanded he cut costs in Gulf drilling operations during the years directly preceding the disaster.

“There were directives,” Lacy said in the 2011 deposition, roughly 10 minutes of which was played in court.

Lacy said that Gulf managers succeeded in cutting costs in 2009 and were told to do a better job in 2010.

“I’m pretty sure there were emails requesting that the original plan needed to be further reduced,” Lacy said.

Also Wednesday, the man in charge of BP at the time of the oil spill said in videotaped testimony played in court that leadership is important in shaping the culture of an organization.

“It’s not unique, it’s not the only thing, but it’s an important thing,” former BP CEO Tony Hayward said.

Roughly 20 minutes of the June 2011 deposition that was taken in London was played on the third day of the trial in federal court in New Orleans. Plaintiffs attorneys are seeking to show that Hayward represented a flippant attitude toward safety they have asserted was embedded in BP’s culture at the time of the disaster.

In his deposition, Hayward was questioned by the Justice Department and plaintiffs suing BP. Among other things, Hayward fought off accusations he sought to prop up BP’s falling share price through his subordinates’ daily media briefings on the spill.

During the deposition, attorneys raised questions about Hayward’s sincerity when he said he had the best interest at heart of spill victims.

Hayward famously infuriated Gulf residents during the height of the spill with his comment, “I’d like my life back.”

Asked during the deposition if he could remember the names of the 11 rig workers killed, Hayward misidentified one man and could name only two others.

During the first phase of the trial, expected to last up to three months, Barbier will hear evidence on causes of the 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.

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.

Read ongoing FuelFix coverage of the legal trials surrounding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill:

Judge approves $1B civil settlement for Transocean (Feb. 19)
BP’s potential oil spill liability cut by $3.4 billion (Feb. 19)
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 completes $2.4B sale of Texas City refinery (Feb. 1)
Guilty: BP admits to causing deaths in spill disaster (Jan. 29)
Rig victim’s widow says Gulf disaster caused ‘inferno of grief’(Jan. 11)
Government accuses BP of being evasive on Gulf spill flow rate (Dec. 28)
Judge approves BP class action settlement (Dec. 21)