BP withheld data from rig crew in Gulf disaster, expert says

NEW ORLEANS — The crew of the rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was well trained and followed standard procedures before the oil spill disaster, but critical information was withheld from them by British oil giant BP, a Transocean drilling expert testified Monday.

“I think they were trying to get it right,” Calvin Barnhill, a petroleum engineer, said of the crew during the fourth week of a civil trial in federal court in New Orleans over the disaster.

Barnhill was called to the stand by Swiss drilling contractor Transocean, which sought to shift blame to other companies as it began its defense after a federal judge balked at a BP request to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims of gross negligence.

Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig and was leasing it to BP, also is expected to call Chief Executive Steve Newman to the stand. That will likely occur on Tuesday.

Barnhill, who reviewed documents and other materials on behalf of the company, said the rig was “state of the art” and had drilled in depths few other rigs in the world had at the time.

He also testified that BP well-site leaders thought the rig crew was a “trained and experienced crew.”

Barnhill said well control is critical when temporarily abandoning a well as BP was doing at the time of the disaster, and he said BP had ultimate authority whether to proceed with the job after a key pressure test was conducted on the well the day of the disaster. BP has admitted it misinterpreted the test.

Barnhill said the crew acted as best it could with the information it had before BP’s Macondo well blew out off Louisiana, causing an explosion on the  rig that killed 11 workers and leading to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

“To me, in looking at the data, each time an event occurred, the crew responded to it,” Barnhill said. “We can debate whether that response was good, bad or otherwise.”

Later, on cross-examination by BP lawyer Mike Brock, Barnhill conceded, “I think all the guys on the floor made a mistake.”

Barnhill said information was withheld from the Transocean rig crew about the status of testing on the cement that was used to seal the well. He also said the crew was not told full details about the discussion BP was having about the number of centralizers to use in the well.

Centralizers are meant to ensure casing runs down the center of the well bore. If casing strings are cemented off-center, there is a risk that a channel of drilling fluid or contaminated cement will be left where the casing contacts the oil formation, creating an imperfect seal.

BP rejected cement contractor Halliburton’s recommendation to use 21 centralizers. Instead, BP used six centralizers.

Earlier Monday, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said a request by BP to rule that plaintiffs suing over the oil spill have failed to prove the company acted with gross negligence in connection with the disaster was premature.

Barbier asked BP lawyer Andrew Langan to file a formal motion, but cautioned, “Frankly, I’m not going to grant that ruling.”

Barbier said he would defer ruling until later in the case. The request for the dismissal of that key issue came on the 13th day of trial in federal court in New Orleans, after the plaintiffs said  their case was all but wrapped up.

M-I Swaco, a unit of oilfield services firm Schlumberger that provided fluid for BP’s doomed Macondo well, said in a court filing that plaintiffs, including the states of Alabama and Louisiana, haven’t proven that its actions were negligent or caused the well to blow out. Barbier did not immediately rule on the request to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims against M-I Swaco.

Plaintiffs attorneys said they still have a final witness, but will call the person at a later date, out of turn.

During the first phase of the trial,  Barbier is hearing evidence on the causes of the well blowout and will determine how to allocate fault. The second phase will address the amount of oil that spilled.

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.

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

Among other things, the plaintiffs allege Transocean had a history of poor safety culture and had not maintained the Deepwater Horizon rig properly.

Billions of dollars are at stake at the trial. Settlement talks continue between some of the parties.

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 billions as part of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit with thousands of spill victims.

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

BP seeks injunction over Gulf oil spill settlement dispute (March 15)
Plaintiffs’ lawyer resigns amid BP oil spill trial (March 14)
Worker: Rig was bustling before BP well blowout (March 13)
Halliburton exec testifies at Gulf spill trial (March 12)
BP warns investor it’s paying more than expected for spill (March 8)