By Whit Remer, Policy Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund
Attorneys in court today for phase two of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill trial focused on BP’s oil spill response plans and the engineering operations contemplated to stop the flow of the oil from the Macondo well. Measures to control and stop oil are referred to as “Source Control” in this part of trial.
Robert Turlak of Transocean took the stand early in the morning to testify about an operation called “BOP on BOP” to stop the flow of oil that was in planning in the early days of the disaster. BOP stands for Blowout Preventer, the piece of equipment that rests on the seabed and transfers oil from underground to a riser pipe which is connected to a floating drilling rig on the ocean surface. The primary purpose of a BOP is to cut off the flow during drilling emergencies where well control is lost, known in the industry as a “blow out.”
Mr. Turlak was on the team in charge of designing a new BOP that would be placed on top of the existing BOP, after it was not activated in time during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The new BOP would be lowered from a boat nearly 5,000 feet above the ocean seabed and put in place with a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV). The new BOP could then be activated from the surface and either cut off the flow of oil completely or divert it through vents on the new BOP, which would carry the oil to the surface. Mr. Turlak’s team worked exhaustively at the direction of BP to prepare the BOP on BOP operation. However, just days before the final components were complete to carry out the operation, BP pulled the plug on the operation in favor of alternative plans, further extending the disaster.
Later in the day, the Aligned Parties called Dr. Robert Bea, an expert on process safety, which is the field of study that focuses on safety planning for high-risk operations such as deepwater drilling or space travel. Dr. Bea testified that while BP had oil spill response plans consistent with industry standards, they lacked plans to control blow outs in very deep drilling situations, like that of the Macondo well. The Aligned Parties offered evidence that BP certified to the Minerals Management Services, the former government agency in charge of overseeing drilling safety, that the company employed individuals trained to deal with deepwater blowouts. However, video testimony of BP’s top engineering officials revealed none had training in deepwater Source Control.
BP seems to be taking the position that they followed the rules of the industry and that all their response plans were signed off on by government officials, but Judge Barbier will have to decide what weight to give to BP’s efforts to stop the flow of oil in light of a crisis that had never before been experienced by the oil and gas industry or government. BP’s efforts to stop the flow of oil and their cooperation with the government may ultimately reduce the amount they have to pay in Clean Water Act civil penalties, which could reach up to $17.6 billion.