BP engineer defends decision on cement job

A BP drilling engineer said Friday he doesn’t believe a much-scrutinized decision about the Macondo well’s cement job posed a threat to the safety of the crew aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig.

During testimony before an investigatory panel, Brett Cocales said the fact that the well had been drilled straight figured in the decision to use six devices to center its pipelike production casing instead of 21.

“It’s one of the straightest holes I’ve seen, actually,” Cocales told the joint investigative panel of the Coast Guard and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which held public hearings in Houston all week.

It is investigating the April 20 blowout that killed 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon and triggered a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The hearings will resume Oct. 4, either in Houston or New Orleans, where the panel took three previous rounds of testimony.

According to earlier testimony, Halliburton Co. workers warned BP engineers five days before the blowout about the potential for a “severe gas flow problem” in the well if the additional centralizers were not added.

But Cocales and several other BP engineers have said they did not see such a warning in any reports.

In an April 16 e-mail, Cocales had downplayed the risk of sticking with the six centralizers already installed, writing “who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine.”

During testimony Friday he characterized that as an expression of his frustration over days of back-and-forth discussion about the centralizer issue.

“It was about, it’s time to stop debating what the model says,” he told the panel, because his supervisor — John Guide – already had made the decision.

Under questioning by his lawyer, Philip Hilder, Cocales also countered an assertion during testimony earlier in the week by Halliburton cementer Jesse Gagliano, who said he recommended 21 centralizers.

Cocales said that figure was used in a computer model of cementing plans because there were already six centralizers on the rig and BP could only get another 15 out to the rig in short order.

‘Pros and cons’

Hilder also asked Cocales about a comment he made in one of his e-mails about the “risk/reward” balance between going with 21 centralizers versus six.

Congressional investigators have suggested the decision may have been motivated by BP’s desire to finish a well that was weeks behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.

“It is a term that refers to economics?” Hilder asked.

No, Cocales said. “It’s a term I’ve used for years, saying what are the pros and cons of a decision.”

Fifth Amendment

Also on Friday, a third BP engineer declined to testify. Through his lawyer, Mitch Lansden, drilling engineer Mark Hafle invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Two other engineers previously have invoked the Fifth Amendment in declining to appear before the panel.

“Mark Hafle is an honorable and decent man and a fine engineer. He has done nothing wrong,” Lansden said.

“I have advised him to exercise his constitutional rights to decline to answer questions at this particular hearing at this particular time as the most reasonable legal strategy given the number, variety and complexity of ongoing investigations.”

BP said in a statement it is continuing to cooperate in the investigation and that workers’ decisions not to testify were made on their own.

Some observers had expected Cocales to decline to testify as well, but Hilder said his client felt the need to straighten out misconceptions.

‘A risk to testifying’

“His e-mail was liberally used in congressional hearings to put his actions in a negative light,” Hilder said after the hearing.

“I know there’s always a risk to testifying and there was a lot of anxiety before the hearing, but I think the committee heard his explanation,” he said.

Thanks for showing up

Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, co-chairman of the investigating board, thanked Cocales for testifying.

“You’re a very brave man for showing up today,” Nguyen said.

Sharon Hong contributed to this report.

tom.fowler@chron.com brett.clanton@chron.com

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Legal oil spill work is heading to New Orleans

With BP’s relief well operation on hold due to weather and a chance it won’t happen at all, the epicenter of the Gulf oil spill’s aftermath moved to New Orleans on Tuesday with a decision to consolidate hundreds of civil lawsuits there.

More than 300 lawsuits, including wrongful-death claims by families of the 11 workers killed in the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, will be heard by New Orleans-based U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, according to a ruling by a judicial panel.

“Without discounting the spill’s effects on other states, if there is a geographic and psychological ‘center of gravity’ in this docket, then the Eastern District of Louisiana is closest to it,” said the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

Attorneys for BP and Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon and operated it under lease to BP, had hoped the cases would be consolidated in Houston. Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued in a hearing before the panel last month in Boise, Idaho, that such a move would be unfair to spill victims.

The criminal investigation into the spill also is centered in New Orleans. A team led by senior Justice Department environmental crimes litigator Howard Stewart has rented about 22,000 square feet of office space just blocks from the federal courthouse.

Separate civil claims filed by BP investors who say the spill caused the company’s share price to plummet will be consolidated under U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in Houston.

At the Macondo well site itself, 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, crews suspended drilling a relief well in the face of threatening tropical weather, likely pushing a final step in controlling the well, called a bottom kill, at least into early next week.

And after weeks of saying the relief well would be the final step in permanently sealing Macondo, National Incident Commander Thad Allen raised the possibility that the bottom kill may not be necessary.

“I wouldn’t want to prejudge whether we’re going to do it or we’re not going to do it,” he told reporters in a briefing. “I think we need to take each piece of information and make the best decision we can.”

The weather delay in the relief well operation gives BP and government scientists in Houston additional time to analyze the well’s condition and weigh their next steps.

The Development Driller III rig will remain on site, but crews will install a temporary plug and take other steps to secure the well until strong winds and waves pass.

Macondo spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico after the April 20 blowout that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon. The flow finally stopped July 15 when a temporary stack of valves was installed at the wellhead under a mile of water.

Last weekend, BP successfully completed a procedure called a static kill that forced heavy mud and then cement into the long pipe-like casing that runs the length of the well.

While the procedure appears to have plugged the casing, officials have said they would follow-up with a relief well to plug the annulus, the narrow area between the casing and the wellbore.

That bottom kill involves pumping mud and cement into the well near its source 13,000 feet below the Gulf seafloor.

Nansen Saleri, CEO of Quantum Reservoir Impact in Houston, said while Macondo appears to be sealed, the bottom kill remains the best way to ensure it never will leak oil again. “The risk factors in proceeding with the relief well are relatively minor compared to some other risk factors of not doing it,” he said.

Once the bad weather blows over, BP will perform pressure tests on the annulus to determine if it could provide a pathway for oil to escape from the reservoir and travel to the surface.

On the legal front, BP has set aside $32.2 billion to pay spill-related costs and claims, including the $20 billion it has begun paying into an escrow account under agreement with the Obama administration.

Stephen French, managing partner of Legalbill, a firm that monitors legal spending, predicted that many of the cases will be settled quickly given the strong feelings a New Orleans jury might have against BP because of the spill.

“I’d expect the cases BP would get behind them the quickest and fairest to set the tone would be the wrongful death cases,” French said.

But that doesn’t mean every business and individual filing suit will have a guaranteed settlement, since many of the businesses may have a hard time providing the paperwork to back up their claims, French said.

tom.fowler@chron.com

brett.clanton@chron.com

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