Almost three years after the blowout of BP’s Macondo well killed 11 rig workers and emptied millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, a trial to determine fault in the disaster got underway Monday before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans. The initial phase of the trial, which is expected to last as long as three months, will decide the degree of blame to be apportioned to BP and other parties involved in the operation of the doomed rig, which led to billions of dollars in damages and penalties when it caught fire and sank in April 2010.
First up among the army of lawyers present was James Roy of Domengeaux, Wright, Roy & Edwards, who led off opening arguments on behalf of a plaintiffs committee that represents thousands of individual claimants. Roy found plenty of blame to go around, faulting Transocean, the operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling unit, for failing to detect early signs that it was losing control of the well. The decision by Transocean to "displace" heavy mud in the well with lighter sea water–despite signs that pressure was building in the drill casing–was due in part to the company’s failure to train its employees of proper well control procedures, Roy alleged. He called that failure part of a pattern of problems on drilling rigs operated by the Switzerland-based company.
Roy also faulted Transocean for poor maintenance of the Deepwater Horizon vessel, claiming the company had a "run it ’til it breaks" philosophy towards its equipment. Roy leveled similar attacks against BP, saying the London-based energy giant had a culture that put "profits before people" and that it cut corners on safety on the Macondo well because it was behind schedule and millions over budget. Roy then moved to Halliburton, which was responsible for the cementing job designed to seal the well bore, which Roy claimed was poorly designed and never tested prior to it being pumped into the well.
Next came Department of Justice lawyer Michael Underhill, who trained most of his fire on BP. In particular, Underhill faulted BP for ignoring problems with a key safety test conducted in the hours before the Macondo well exploded. Underhill noted that a "negative pressure test," designed to establish that the well had been effectively sealed, indicated that pressure was in fact building in the drill casing. But, he said, BP’s manager aboard the Deepwater Horizon, as well his supervisor in Houston, failed to act on that knowledge while there was still time to avert a blowout.
The attorneys general of Alabama and Louisiana also got a turn to point fingers on Monday. Alabama AG Luther Strange lambasted BP, saying that its cost-cutting operating philosophy made the spill as predictable as it was preventable. Louisiana AG James "Buddy" Caldwell, detailed the devastating effect the spill continued to have on Louisiana’s delicate wetlands, noting that oil was still turning up on the state’s coastline.
In the afternoon session lawyers for Transocean, BP, and Halliburton spent their presentations piling blame onto each other. Transocean’s lawyer, Brad Brian of Munger Tolles & Olson, claimed BP was trying to tar members of Transocean’s dead drilling crew to cover up its own misconduct, noting acidly that BP has pled guilty to eleven counts of seaman’s manslaughter. It was BP’s decision, Brian claimed, to displace the heavy drilling mud in the well with lighter seawater despite the results of the pressure test. "The problem was not with the crew," Brian said. "It was with the well and how BP managed it."
Don Godwin, chairman of Dallas-based Godwin Lewis, continued to pummel BP in his opening on behalf of Halliburton. Focusing on the disputed cement job, Godwin claimed it was BP, not his client, that was responsible for the well’s catastrophic failure. BP had signed off on the cement job, Godwin noted, and had failed run tests, such as a cement bond log, to insure the cement has properly set. He too faulted BP for ignoring the results of the negative pressure test, noting that it attributed the pressure in the well to something called a "bladder effect" which, Godwin asserted, "simply doesn’t exist." There was no evidence that the cement job was defective, Godwin said, and in any event BP should know it couldn’t rely on the cement until testing confirmed it was acting as a barrier.
In contrast to the sometimes impassioned openings of his colleagues, Robert "Mike" Brock, a partner with Covington & Burling, eased into his defense of BP. He noted that BP and Transocean had worked well together on numerous drilling projects and that Halliburton was the acknowledged world leader in its field. But slowly Brock began to shift blame onto BP’s contractors. The Macondo well, Brock noted, was actually completed almost two weeks before the accident. As such, he maintained, much of the responsibility had shifted on to Transocean to secure the well, which was to be temporarily abandoned until a production rig could be moved into place.
Picking up on the plaintiffs’ attack, Brock said that Transocean employees had missed critical signs that the well was experiencing a "kick", with hydrocarbons racing into the drill casing. While acknowledging that his client had "misinterpreted" the key negative pressure test, he said Transocean had missed opportunities to control the well and move the drilling unit to safety before the explosion. Brock also faulted Halliburton for designing a faulty cement job, including using leftover material from a previous job. That material contained an additive that made it unsuitable for the Macondo job, Brock said, adding that Halliburton might have caught the fateful error if it had bothered to test the cement before pumping it into the well.
Despite the acrimony among the parties, reports on the eve of trial by The New York Times and others suggested that a settlement offer from the government might be taking shape. No further developments on a settlement developed by Monday evening.