A Halliburton Co. (HAL) worker assigned to monitor a BP Plc (BP/) well testified at trial that he missed a warning sign of a potential blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig before the explosion that set off the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Joseph Keith, a “mud logger” who monitored the flow of fluid in the well, agreed under questioning in court yesterday in New Orleans that he didn’t alert others on the rig on April 20, 2010, as pressure increased on the drilling pipe, a sign of a possible “kick.” A kick is an entry of gas or fluid into the wellbore, which can set off a blowout.
At the nonjury trial over liability, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is to determine responsibility for the disaster and whether BP, owner of the well; Transocean Ltd. (RIG), owner of the Deepwater Horizon; or Houston-based Halliburton acted with willful or wanton misconduct or reckless indifference -- the legal requirement for establishing gross negligence.
Keith said he hadn’t seen any indications of a kick while monitoring the well. When presented at trial with data showing 100 pounds per square inch of pressure on the pipe, he said he didn’t think it was an “anomaly.” A reading of 100 psi required a well monitor to alert others of a possible kick, he acknowledged under questioning by plaintiffs’ lawyer John de Gravelles of Baton Rouge.
“I’ve been a mud logger for 19 and a half years and I’ve never missed a kick,” Keith testified.
“You missed this one, didn’t you sir?” Gravelles asked.
“A lot of people miss a kick, sir.”
“You and a lot of other people, correct, sir?” Gravelles asked.
“Yeah,” Keith answered.
The blowout and explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and spilled more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The accident sparked hundreds of lawsuits against London-based BP, Vernier, Switzerland-based Transocean, and Houston-based Halliburton. Trial began Feb. 25.
“I’m sorry it happened,” Keith said during his testimony. He wept on the stand as he recalled the chaotic evacuation from the rig. “I wish it had never happened...and everybody was still at work,” he said.
Lawyers for the government and spill victims contend BP was over budget and behind schedule on the Macondo deep-water drilling project off the Louisiana coast, prompting the company to cut corners and ignore safety tests showing the well was unstable.
They also allege Halliburton’s cement job was defective and Transocean employees made a series of missteps on the rig, including disabling safety systems, failing to properly maintain the installation and leaving the crew untrained for crisis situations.
BP sued its contractors, claiming Transocean workers’ miscues were the main cause of the explosion and that Halliburton officials concealed flaws with cement work done on the drilling project. Transocean and Halliburton countersued, pointing the finger back at BP on liability issues.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs and co-defendants contend that Keith should have alerted others that a kick was occurring. Keith testified yesterday that while he took a smoke break during a critical time on the night of the explosion, he was back on duty in time to monitor the well.
Monitoring the well “was a little hard that night” because so many simultaneous operations were going on, Keith said. Halliburton had been hired to provide cementing services to seal the well to prevent leaks of hydrocarbons. Keith was monitoring the well that night as workers tried to seal it while preparing to move the drilling rig.
Keith said he had never seen so much activity during displacement of a well. This included repeated flushing of tanks, crane operation, diverting of fluid overboard and offloading of mud from another vessel below the rig, Keith said.
Keith said he had no authority or means to shut in the well, stop the flow of mud, pumps, or otherwise stop drilling operations. He could only advise others with such authority of abnormal readings on gas or well-monitoring equipment.
If he detects a kick, “we’re just supposed to let them know if we see anything,” he testified.
Keith said Transocean’s and BP’s monitors in the drilling shack were looking at the same data he was and had access to information that he didn’t.
Under questioning by Halliburton attorney Floyd Hartley Jr., Keith said that on April 20 he set alarms on his monitoring equipment for abnormal changes in gas and fluid flow. When he came back from his smoke break, Keith said he saw alarms go off in his shack on the rig.
“I made several calls to the rig floor and a call to the mud lab,” Keith recalled. When he called the lab, he said he was told that a crew was cleaning a tank.
He said he saw a spike in pump pressure and telephoned assistant driller Stephen Curtis about 9:15 p.m. and was informed that it had nothing to do with well pressure or a blowout. Keith testified that a few seconds later he called Curtis, who said a valve was lined up wrong. Curtis sent a crew to investigate a “pop-up valve,” Keith said. There was no indication of a kick or blowout, Keith said.
Keith said the first sign he had there was something wrong was when he heard a noise outside like rain on the roof of his shack on the rig. It was drilling mud coming up from the Macondo. Then, “I smelled gas,” he said. His monitoring system shut down and “everything went black,” Keith testified.
The well exploded shortly after. Keith and other survivors were evacuated to the nearby workout boat, the M/V Damon Bankston, where they watched the rig burn. Curtis, an assistant driller for Transocean, was among the 11 people who perished in the blast.
Barbier also heard testimony yesterday from Edward G. Webster, a marine engineering expert, who said Transocean officials didn’t comply with international safety management codes in their operations of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
Webster said that his review of records in the case showed Transocean executives violated the international codes by failing to properly maintain the drilling installation, including its fire-suppression system.
He noted that a 2005 audit of the rig raised concerns about “the availability and reliability” of the emergency shut-down system designed to avoid explosions and fires and listed its effectiveness as “suspect.”
Transocean managers were required under the safety codes to fix any equipment that broke on the rig, Webster added. Other witnesses have testified that some broken drilling equipment on the Deepwater Horizon was left unattended for three years.
“They were required to fix” any malfunctioning equipment “immediately” under the international codes, he added.
The case is In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, 10-md-02179, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).
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