Gavels In the Gulf: The BP Trial - Week 8 In Review

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Derek Park

BP Rests Its Case

Week 8 of the trial saw BP complete its case. Witnesses included the onshore Well Team Leader (WTL) and their Gulf of Mexico Vice President, Wells and Completions, at the time of the disaster. Expert witnesses covered the blowout preventer (BOP) and the International Maritime Code (ISM) regulations.

Drilling and Well Construction

BP’s WTL was responsible for operations on the Deepwater Horizon as line manager of the Well Site Leaders (WSL’s). The WSLs will not appear at this trial as they have invoked the fifth amendment of the US Constitution which allows that no one shallbe compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself. The WTL is therefore the BP manager ‘nearest to the action’ that this court will be able to examine.

Oil & Gas Special Report: Macondo Deepwater Horizon "Never Say Never Again"

He confirmed that Deepwater Horizon was seen within BP as the ‘best in the business’. He gave a deal of evidence as to how effectively and safely the offshore and onshore teams, BP and contractors, worked together. He had been disappointed with the slow response to a kick in the month before the incident, as much with the performance of the BP pore pressure prediction team as the Transocean drill crew.

In cross examination the lawyers for the US Government raised the fact that the MMS permit to drill the well showed an expected fracture gradient of 16ppg on the final interval and that BP had been using around 14.5 ppg ECD based on actual circulation conditions. Continuing last week’s debate about safe drilling margin, they asked if BP believed that 16ppg was the actual fracture gradient at the final interval.

Much has been made previously about BP’s decision to select a long string casing design instead of a liner, the suggestion being that this was done purely on grounds of cost (estimated savings of $m 7-10). BP maintained that the selection was made purely on engineering grounds and that the long string casing provided a better option than a liner, not least because it avoids the split seal arrangement on the liner tieback. Furthermore, the material and the crew to run the liner had in fact been mobilised to the rig, incurring a considerable cost but allowing the liner option to be kept open. The casing selection had been made on the basis of sound engineering and nobody on or offshore had suggested that it was the less safe option.

BP also justified their decision to use only six centralisers despite Halliburton’s recommendation to run twenty one. It was not uncommon to run casing with no centralisers on deepwater wells drilled from MODUs as this avoided the risk of damage as they passed through wellhead and BOP. The WTL also had experience of centralisers being lost in the well when casing had to be pulled, leading to abandonment of the section. BP did not believe at the time that this decision was increasing the risk of a blowout, because any cement problems would be shown up by the casing testing. Remedial squeeze work could be done, and again this was not uncommon.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs asserted that BP knew the well was a problem and had been described as ‘the well from hell’. Evidence showed that one BP drilling engineer had gone as far as recommending that the well be plugged and abandoned. This was explained as being just a last resort option that was always a possibility, but the preferred option had always been to complete the well.

BP confirmed that during the cementing of the production casing nobody on the rig believed the float collar had not converted or that a CBL log was needed. CBL’s were usually run during the completion phase and as there had been no losses, and the plugs had bumped as expected, it was decided that the log would not be needed. This was not uncommon on an exploration well but the kit and the people were offshore if needed, hardly an example of excessive attempts to minimise costs.

Much has already been said about the negative test; suffice to say that BP onshore management agree that the acceptance of the test both by BP and Transocean was a grave mistake. The WTL said he had not been called on the night of the blowout to discuss the results or the decision made offshore to accept the test.

Flow Path

There was little evidence this week concerning the path to surface taken by the well fluids. BP did highlight however that when the casing hangar was retrieved after the well was killed there was no evidence of erosion. BP’s position is that with flow via the annulus, erosion similar to that seen on the BOP would have been evident.

BP Onshore Organisation

BP had changed the Drilling and Completions organisation weeks before the incident. Operations and engineering had been separated and this meant that the WTL no longer had line authority over the drilling engineers working on the Macondo well. This had led to some frustration during the drilling of a somewhat difficult well and was seized upon by the Plaintiffs’ lawyers who tried to paint a picture of a dysfunctional organisation.

Documents and emails produced in court, including an email that was never actually sent, were used to infer problems in the BP onshore organisation. The lawyers highlighted comments such as ‘flying by the seat of our pants’ and ‘paranoia from engineering is causing chaos’. In its defence BP explained the frustration as being the result of all the options that engineering were keeping open, such as mobilising and holding an alternative casing string on an already crowded deck. This was the source of the unease felt by the operations people but it had no implications for safety. Nonetheless it gave the plaintiffs an opening and allowed them to place some pretty uncomfortable evidence before the judge and claim that ‘a dysfunctional leadership team is exactly what led to the explosion’.

Process Safety

It has been a theme of the trial that BP’s safety focus was on personal rather than process safety. BP tried to make the point that process safety in well operations is built in to the design and execution of the well. Process safety is what drilling engineers and well site leaders do continuously in their professional lives and is not visible in the same way as say a dropped objects campaign. There was a rigorous project control procedure with stage gates and external peer reviews meaning that hundreds of people inputted into process safety throughout the design and drilling of a well.


Safety Management Systems

Much has also been made of the safety management system (SMS) which applied on Deepwater Horizon. BP’s corporate system is the operations management system (OMS) which was developed in the aftermath of the Texas City refinery accident in 2005. However the rig, being owned and operated by Transocean, used its own corporate system. There was contractual bridging document which analysed and filled in any gaps, ensuring that the overarching requirements of OMS were met. The plaintiffs however pointed out that BP’s own Chief Executive had determined that OMS be used for all work undertaken in their name and cited this as a failing by the BP Macondo team to implement their own policy.

BP’s marine expert said it would in fact have been illegal under international maritime law for BP, as the customer, to impose OMS on a vessel that they had on a time charter. BP’s only obligation under OMS was to verify that the vessel SMS was certified against the IMS code, as part of its classification.

BP’s case was not helped by the fact that five years after Texas City, OMS was only being implemented in GoM D&C at the time of the blowout, and this had been put on hold whilst the reorganisation took place. Perhaps there is a lesson there for us all; is it appropriate that it takes five years to implement the lessons of a major incident and is ripping up and starting again the best way to go with safety management systems?

Plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the delay in implementing OMS had contributed to the disaster. BP denied this saying that perfectly good systems were in place which OMS would only have improved.


BP fielded its own expert to testify why the BOP failed to sever the drill pipe and close the well. In his view the well would have been sealed if the AMF/deadman had worked as intended when power was lost at the time of the second explosion.

You may recall that despite a flat battery and a mis-wired solenoid on the BOP control pods, Transocean maintain that the controls did function, but that the blind ram was unable to shear because the extreme flow from the well had pushed the drill pipe off centre. The BP expert said that in his opinion the pipe was centred at the time of the explosion and was only pushed off centre by the travelling block when it fell sometime after the explosion. Hence the controls must have failed.

These are the so called ‘force from below’ and ‘force from above’ theories. BP and Transocean experts agree that the pipe was forced and stayed of centre but how and when this happened is a key contention. If the controls had worked and the pipe been centred then the AMF would have functioned when communication to the rig was lost at the second explosion.

However, had the pipe been off centre, the controls could have worked but the pipe would still not have been sheared. The rub here is that if control failure is the reason the AMF failed then that is down to Transocean maintenance. The experts agree that if the reason for failure was the pipe being forced against the walls of the BOP then that is something beyond the norm and less of a liability.

No one disputes that the pipe was off centre when the autoshear failed on activation by ROV nearly two days after the blowout. The court will have to plough through mountains of evidence regarding the BOP controls and the behaviour of the drill pipe before they can decide on this one!

BP also maintained that the BOP selection and configuration was fit for purpose at Macondo and indeed had been approved as such by the MMS.

Emergency Response

BP’s Drilling and Completions VP had been visiting the rig and was on the bridge at the time of the disaster. He confirmed that the Master of the Deepwater Horizon had waited for permission from the OIM to initiate an emergency disconnect (EDS) even though mud was being blown out from the well and raining down on deck. It wasn’t until after the explosions that the OIM had arrived on the bridge and ordered an immediate EDS.

This was taken up by the BP marine expert witness. He was highly critical of the dual command structure and claimed that the Captain should have used his overriding authority to EDS as soon as mud was seen to be blowing out from the well, irrespective of any activity by the drill crew . The vessel’s major accident hazard risk assessment had identified blowout as a major risk and the ability to move off station as the mitigation. Critical minutes were lost awaiting a decision from the OIM and the best chance to seal the well was missed.

Under maritime law, a dynamically positioned MODU remains a ship underway and the ultimate authority can never be delegated. Operating procedures designating the OIM in command at any time are overridden by international maritime law which says the Captain is always in command.

With that, BP rested its case and the first phase of the trial came to a close. Phase two will follow in the autumn and will look at the aftermath, most notably the attempts to kill the well and the containment and clean-up operations.

Watch this space!


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