U.S. witness: Spill response removed far less crude than BP expert estimates

NEW ORLEANS — A retired Coast Guard official testified Wednesday the massive oil spill response BP managed out of Houston in 2010 fell short of typical efforts to remove crude from the ocean.

Skimming removed just 5 percent of the oil from BP’s blown-out Macondo well, compared to the 10 percent to 15 percent such mechanical measures have historically recovered in U.S. open ocean spills, retired Coast Guard Captain Mark VanHaverbeke told a federal judge during the second day of BP’s oil spill trial.

“It’s an unremarkable portion,” VanHaverbeke said. “Ninety-five percent remained in the environment.”

The testimony was presented as one part of the U.S. government’s case against BP in the so-called penalty phase of the civil trial over the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Prosecutors are seeking up to $13.7 billion in fines for BP and more than $1 billion in penalties for Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which owned 25 percent of the Macondo well.

BP has argued its multibillion-dollar spill response should weigh against potential environmental fines.

VanHaverbeke’s estimate didn’t include the oil that was burned and dispersed with chemicals by BP and other responders under a Coast Guard-led Unified Command. He said those methods shouldn’t figure into the calculation because they don’t remove oil from an environment, but only change its condition.

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Frank Paskewich, an official slated to testify on behalf of BP during the three-week trial, included oil burned and dispersed in calculating the oil removal rate was 29 percent, based on the U.S. government’s estimate of how much oil spilled. Barbier earlier this month ruled the amount spilled was 3.19 million barrels.

Under cross-examination by BP lawyer Mike Brock, VanHaverbeke acknowledged burning oil and using dispersants were effective tools in keeping oil away from sensitive beaches.

“But it didn’t remove it from the environment,” he said. “Let’s not sugarcoat it.”

VanHaverbeke testified it’s far better to prevent oil spills from happening in the first place.

“The problem is once the oil spills, you’re fighting gravity, physics and everything else,” he said. “Then you’re trying to go recorral that oil and get it picked up or even effectively burn it. Anything like that is extremely difficult.” 

While the witness acknowledged the response was better organized than past efforts — indeed, the government has said it will not make a case that BP did a bad job in the spill response — response operations are always an up-hill battle.

I think this event, contrary to Exxon Valdez response organization, all of the logistics, all of that stuff worked very well,” VanHaverbeke said. “But as we saw in the end, we only recovered 5 percent of the oil, which shows that we can have a great organization, but we still can’t do much better.”