HOUSTON, Feb 12 (Reuters) - BP Plc has seven contracted rigs drilling wells in the Gulf of Mexico nearly three years after its disastrous Macondo oil spill - and more eyes and ears on each well than ever before, the company says.
As part of its repeated promises to shore up safety in the aftermath of the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, BP has added a layer of oversight at a monitoring center in Houston with experts watching the wells day and night.
Rig operations are still controlled aboard each rig, but the onshore experts can stop the work if they detect irregular pressure or some other anomaly.
The intent is to watch more closely for the kinds of problems that led to Macondo's rupture in April 2010, which caused an explosion that killed 11 men and spewed nearly 5 million barrels of crude from the runaway well.
Before the spill, BP had planned to add a monitoring center at its global exploration and production hub in Houston, But since Macondo, the focus changed from operational updates and cost oversight to well integrity.
"The actual makeup and role came from the learnings of the accident," BP well operations manager Chris Harder told reporters Tuesday during a tour of the center.
BP is slated to go to trial in federal court in New Orleans Feb. 25 on potentially massive spill-related civil claims from the U.S. Justice Department, states along the U.S. Gulf Coast, and others.
The key issue in the case is the level of BP's negligence in the spill. A gross negligence finding could quadruple damages owed by BP under the Clean Water Act to $21 billion.
Before Macondo, BP connected onshore and offshore engineers via satellite for daily updates on Gulf operations, productivity and cost oversight -- but not well control.
Macondo changed the center's focus. Well site engineers and experts watch computer screens in 12-hour shifts -- the same hours as rig workers -- to monitor pumps, pressure, and pits, or the tanks on rigs that hold liquids used in drilling.
"We're weaving a safety net," said Richard Morrison, BP's head of Gulf operations.
Overall BP has committed $37 billion to settle spill-related claims in the years after the disaster. That includes a record $4 billion in criminal penalties that accompanied BP's guilty plea to 11 felony counts stemming from workers' deaths, felony obstruction of Congress and two misdemeanors.
It also includes an uncapped estimated $7.8 billion class-action settlement to resolve claims from more than 100,000 individuals and businesses claiming economic and medical damages from the spill.
Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded when Macondo ruptured, has a hearing on Thursday in New Orleans on its proposed federal criminal settlement.