By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS Oct 2 BP's manager in charge
of controlling the Macondo blowout in 2010 was never trained to
permanently plug a ruptured oil well and said in court on
Wednesday the British company was not fully prepared for the
worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
On day three of the second phase of a federal trial in New
Orleans over the accident in the Gulf of Mexico, BP's James
Dupree also said "yes" when asked if the company was "starting
from scratch" when it scrambled to stop the leak.
The U.S. District Court trial could lead to fines of more
than $17 billion.
BP lawyer Mike Brock sought to show the company was as
well-prepared for the leak as any other firm. He also emphasized
that equipment needed to cap the well was not readily available
in the industry at the time.
The plugging approach that eventually worked after millions
of barrels of oil leaked over 87 days, a "capping stack," took
weeks to build. Capping stacks have since become crucial pieces
of equipment standing by for emergencies in the Gulf as the
government has tightened safety and environmental standards.
"I had no formal training in well-kill operations," Dupree
told the court, referring to the operation of plugging a well.
He called the blowout an unprecedented worst-case scenario. "We
didn't have the equipment to attack a Macondo-type event, that's
why we had to engineer so many things on the fly."
"We didn't have the preparations we have today," he said.
The company's lawyers also sought to reject a central
argument made by plaintiffs - which include the U.S. government,
Gulf states and former contractors Transocean and
Halliburton Co - that BP's estimates of the size of the
leak were unsubstantiated and complicated efforts to control the
Internal company emails presented at the trial have shown BP
saying publicly that 5,000 barrels of oil a day were leaking
into the ocean when it knew up to 100,000 barrels a day could
have been leaking.
Dupree said his team was nearly sure at one point that an
early capping attempt known as a "top kill" was working - only
to be dealt a stinging setback when they realized the well was
"We thought we had killed the well...There was a celebration
in the room," he said.
After the failure of the top kill, which pumped heavyweight
drilling mud into the well and then put junk material on top of
it, BP became concerned that too much weight would cause the
well to breach.
That prompted them to scrap another option, known as "BOP on
BOP," that would have put a blowout preventer on top of a
Plaintiffs have suggested "BOP on BOP" would have ended the
leak sooner than the capping stack BP finally installed.
Dupree said safety was a concern when responding to the
blowout that killed 11 men.
"I'm really proud of my team," Dupree said. "We executed all
those operations and nobody else got hurt," he told the court.
BP's team stressed that the company's actions during the
spill response were coordinated with the approval of government
officials and that many of its team members were trained to
Asked if BP was prepared, Lars Herbst, a top regulator for
the Gulf, said he believed the company was "prepared to
initially respond" to the blowout and later on "technology and
procedures were developed to address that situation."
FINES HANG IN BALANCE
This phase of the trial, expected to last a month, covers
how much oil spewed from the well and whether efforts to stop it
In the costliest scenario, the fines under the Clean Water
Act could top $17 billion - an amount beyond the $42 billion BP
has set aside for clean-up, compensation and damages.
The company has shed about $39 billion in assets to cover
most of its provisions. But damages could rise and BP shares
have lost a third of their value since the disaster, partly
because of uncertainty over future fines.
The first phase of the trial, which wrapped up in April,
looked at dividing blame among BP and its contractors;
Transocean owned the drilling rig and Halliburton did cement
work on the well.
The U.S. government says 4.9 million barrels were spilled,
while BP says 3.26 million barrels leaked. Both those totals
include 810,000 barrels that were collected during clean-up that
the judge has agreed to exclude.
Under the Clean Water Act, negligence can be punished with a
maximum fine of $1,100 for each barrel of oil spilled; a gross
negligence verdict carries a potential $4,300 per barrel fine.
If the court judged the spill to have been 4.09 million
barrels - the government's estimate less oil recovered - the
price of negligence could reach $4.5 billion. Gross negligence
could run to $17.6 billion.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier has said he will not assign
penalties for BP until the third phase of the trial, expected
early next year.
The case is In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater
Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, U.S. District
Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, No. 10-md-02179.