Halliburton official destroyed notes of cement test related to Gulf oil spill

NEW ORLEANS — A former Halliburton lab manager testified Tuesday that a company official asked him not to record results of a cement stability test related to the well in the 2010 Gulf oil spill disaster.

Timothy Quirk said during a civil trial over the disaster in federal court in New Orleans that while the request was “a little unusual,” he complied.

The test was conducted shortly after the spill, using ingredients similar to those used to seal the undersea well that blew out. Quirk said he told the results to the company official that asked for the test, then he threw away his notes.

“He did not want them reported,” Quirk testified, referring to his former colleague. Quirk now works for Chevron, according to Halliburton.

The testimony comes a week after a Halliburton lawyer, Don Godwin, acknowledged that officials recently discovered cement samples possibly tied to the ill-fated drilling project that weren’t turned over to the Justice Department after the oil spill.

Plaintiffs attorneys are seeking to show there was a cover-up over the cement samples in an effort to deflect attention away from Halliburton. In response, Halliburton has asserted that the samples recently found have no bearing on the ongoing trial to assign responsibility for the nation’s worst offshore oil spill.

Previous tests that were used as part of various government investigations of the disaster were done using ingredients similar to what was used in BP’s well, but not with the actual samples since they were not available. The investigations have said the cement was not stable and allowed gas to flow into the well and cause an explosion on the Transocean-owned Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 workers.

Earlier Tuesday, Transocean’s chief executive, Steven L. Newman, testified that the Swiss drilling contractor knew it had a high-potential safety problem across its company months before the oil spill because it had  suffered four rig deaths in a span of just 92 days.

Newman said he sent a memo to staff in fall 2009 that said he was concerned about the increasing number of major incidents. He testified that Transocean needed to work quickly and decisively on fixing the problem and “stopping the fatalities.”

“I knew as a result of the incidents we were experiencing that we needed to do something,” Newman said under cross-examination by plaintiffs attorney Robert Cunningham.

Seven months later, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off Louisiana.

Transocean’s safety culture was as much on trial as the company itself, and Newman was questioned extensively about safety lapses that preceded the April 20, 2010 Gulf disaster.

In the 2009 incidents, three workers were killed in crane mishaps, while the fourth fell down an elevator shaft during a rig induction tour. None of the incidents involved well control issues, Newman said.

The Transocean chief said the company recommitted to safety after the episodes, driving home the mantra, “Think, start and timeout for safety.”

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Newman did note that from 2005 to 2009, the company suffered 556 well control events, including 329 that involved kicks, related to 4,966 wells that it operated on. A kick is a sudden burst of oil or gas into a well from an oil formation that is being drilled into. Workers on the Deepwater Horizon have been accused of not reacting appropriately to a big kick before BP’s Macondo well blew out.

Newman said that well control is fundamentally about “awareness and vigilance” and “taking prompt, appropriate action.”

While he said he believes that “everything we do can be done safely,” Newman also insisted, “It is a hazardous business.”

Newman said the Transocean rig crew made mistakes before the Gulf disaster, but he insisted BP bears ultimate responsibility for misinterpreting a key pressure test before the blast.

“Our people should have done more,” Newman said.

Still, Newman said he doesn’t blame the crew for the explosion or the oil spill.

In rapid fire testimony and using hand gestures to make his points, Newman said BP allowed the temporary abandonment of its undersea Macondo well to go forward after a negative pressure test on the well that company officials deemed successful. BP has admitted it misinterpreted the test.

But, Newman also acknowledged that Transocean has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal charge in connection with the disaster that stems from the pressure test mistake.

Newman said he personally recommended to Transocean’s board that it approve the company’s $1.4 billion criminal and civil settlement with the Justice Department.

Transocean has been faulted for having had a lax safety culture at the time of the disaster. But, Newman challenged such claims.

Follow the testimony: Live tweets from inside the Gulf oil spill trial courtroom

Newman said Transocean had responsibility for rig safety, but BP was responsible for well safety.

“Safety is one of our core values,  and I think it is fundamental to what we do,” Newman said.

Asked by Cunningham if anything management did contributed to the disaster, Newman hedged at first, then said, “We have not identified any management failures.”

Newman also challenged suggestions that cost-cutting led to the disaster, at least as far as Transocean is concerned.

“We get paid for 24 hours worth of work,” he said. “There is no incentive to take 24 hours of work and condense it into 23 hours.”

Newman said he has been at Transocean for nearly two decades and stays because he loves the company and its commitment to helping serve the world’s energy needs.

“I love what we do,” he said. “I love a business that involves significant capital investment.”

Newman said he could talk about “apple pie platitudes” all day, but at the end of the day, “I just love the company.”

Newman’s voice shook at times during his testimony, especially when discussing the deaths of the 11 rig workers who were killed in the blast.

Newman said he thinks “every day” about the men who died.

“Because I ask myself if there isn’t something more I could have done,” Newman said.

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Transocean, which owned the rig and was leasing it to BP to drill the British oil giant’s Macondo well a mile beneath the sea, called Newman as part of its defense against civil claims that are the subject of the trial in federal court in New Orleans.

Billions of dollars are at stake.

During the first phase of the trial, U.S. District Judge Carl 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.