October 1, 2013 11:38 pm

BP had tools to end spill sooner, court told

BP had equipment available that could have sealed its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico within a month of it blowing out in April 2010, two months earlier than the spill was actually ended, the trial over the disaster has been told.

Edward Ziegler, a safety consultant appearing as an expert witness, told the US court in New Orleans that a blowout preventer – a stack of valves used to prevent oil leaks – was available by the middle of May.

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The well was finally sealed with a similar stack of valves on July 15.

Carrie Karis, BP’s lawyer, cast doubt on Mr Ziegler’s credentials as an expert on deepwater wells, and suggested that capping the well was not a “piece of cake”, as he had described it.

She also highlighted a statement from President Barack Obama from May 17, saying: “BP is operating at our direction,” supporting the company’s argument that all decisions on sealing the well were made together with the US authorities.

James Dupree, the BP executive who led its effort to stop the leak, gave evidence that in mid-May there were “several engineering issues” that made it impossible to use a new blowout preventer immediately, including the difficulty of removing the top of the broken preventer on the sea bed.

He added that the company was “very concerned” about the weight of an additional blowout preventer doing further damage to the well.

In the second phase of the trial, addressing the effort to seal the well and the volume of oil that was spilled, Halliburton is in an alliance with Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and state governments, businesses and individuals seeking damages over the disaster.

Mr Ziegler was called by lawyers representing Halliburton, which provided the cement used at Macondo, and was trying to put more of the blame for the spill on BP.

Mr Ziegler testified that attaching a new blowout preventer to a ruptured one on a wellhead on the seabed “existed and was available as a technique in the industry” years before the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

If BP had had the equipment ready to hand, it could have sealed the Macondo well by May 1, less than two weeks after it blew out on April 20, he said.

Even though it did not have the equipment prepared, and had to adapt a blowout preventer that was not designed for the purpose, he said, it could still have been ready by mid-May.

Earlier, Robert Turlak, a Transocean manager who had worked on finding a way to seal the well, testified that the company had had a capping stack ready for use in early June, but BP had decided not to use it.

The “aligned parties”, as the alliance of BP’s opponents is known, has suggested that BP rejected more effective methods of sealing the well in favour of its failed “Top Kill” plan, in order to avoid exposing its “cover-up” of the rate at which oil was escaping from the well.

BP’s lawyers have said it “defied common sense” to think that the company would not have tried to seal the well as quickly as possible.

Mr Ziegler said: “It defies common sense that they would not have a plan, that they would not shut the well in as soon as possible.”

The trial has heard evidence from industry employees and government officials involved in the disaster, testifying that BP had not shared the full details of its estimates of the flow rate.

Richard Vargo, a Halliburton executive who had also worked on the spill response, testified in video evidence that he had only learnt much later that BP staff believed that the “Momentum Kill”, part of the Top Kill procedure, would work only if the oil was flowing at less than 15,000 barrels per day. Halliburton’s estimate of the flow rate at the time was 30,000 barrels per day.

He said he was “pretty angry” at that, because they were putting people at risk and the well at risk in the Top Kill procedure, without being given all the information they needed from BP.

“Doing an operation like this is dangerous, and so risk to people getting hurt, that was definitely a top risk,” he said.

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