USGS head to be questioned in oil spill deposition

A critical issue in the ongoing litigation of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico rig explosion and oil spill is about to take center stage in a deposition of a key U.S. government figure — how the amount of crude that spewed from an undersea well was calculated.

Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, is scheduled to be grilled by lawyers for BP during the two-day deposition that begins Wednesday. A court filing Monday says BP has been allotted nearly nine of the 15 hours scheduled for the deposition to question McNutt. Lawyers for the Justice Department, the Gulf states and plaintiffs attorneys also will question her.

The outcome could help or hurt BP in its efforts to challenge the government’s long-held conclusion that 206 million gallons of oil was discharged by BP’s Macondo well a mile beneath the sea some 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. BP has contended a much smaller amount of oil was spilled, but it has never provided its own precise calculation.

The amount of oil spilled is a key component in the determination of fines and penalties for the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. BP and the Justice Department have been trying for a year or so to reach a deal on penalties, and Gulf states have been jockeying for position on how much of that money will be divided up between the states. Billions of dollars are at stake.

There is also an ongoing criminal investigation, and what comes out in the civil case can impact what happens in the criminal probe.

There was widespread confusion among BP and government officials in the early days and weeks after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion about how much oil was leaking from the Macondo well. The number continued to change, and some of the nation’s leading scientists were called in to help make an accurate determination.

After several meetings over the next few months, the oil spill flow team provided its final calculation.

Besides the oil spill calculation, plaintiffs lawyers also have been seeking to question McNutt about the efforts to control the well. They have argued she played a key role in monitoring those efforts.

Eleven workers were killed when the Transocean-owned rig exploded. The well was finally capped three months after the spill and in September 2010 it was sealed for good using a relief well that pumped in cement at the source of the oil.