A BP Plc executive testified the captain of the oil rig that exploded and sent millions of barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico delayed activating the installation’s safety systems after the blast as a trial over the disaster ended.
Patrick O’Bryan, BP’s former vice president of Gulf drilling operations, told a judge in New Orleans yesterday Transocean Ltd. employee Curt Kuchta, captain of the Deepwater Horizon rig, told crew members not to initiate safety systems without permission from the installation’s top drilling manager.
That meant the safety systems weren’t activated until minutes after the explosion ignited the rig’s drilling floor and knocked out power, said O’Bryan, one of BP’s last witnesses in the case. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who heard eight weeks of testimony in the non-jury trial, said he would decide fault for the disaster later.
“So after you see the fire, you recall somebody asking Captain Kuchta about” activating the blowout preventer and other safety systems, BP lawyer Hariklia “Carrie” Karis asked O’Bryan yesterday in a liability trial over the spill.
Kuchta was “pretty emphatic” that he needed the drilling specialist’s permission to implement the systems, O’Bryan recalled. Several minutes passed before another crew member acted, he added.
Lawyers for the federal government and spill victims contend in the nonjury trial that BP was over budget and behind schedule on the Macondo well off the Louisiana coast, prompting the company to cut corners and ignore safety tests showing the well was unstable.
The April 20, 2010, blast killed 11 workers and sent waves of oil into the Gulf, killing fish and waterfowl. The accident, which created the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, sparked hundreds of lawsuits against well owner BP; Houston-based Halliburton Co.; and Vernier, Switzerland-based Transocean, the Deepwater Horizon’s owner.
The liability trial began Feb. 25. Barbier must decide whether one or more of the companies acted with willful or wanton misconduct or reckless indifference -- the legal requirement for establishing gross negligence.
For BP, a finding of gross negligence would mean the company might be liable to the U.S. for more than $17 billion in Clean Water Act fines, as well as unspecified punitive damages to claimants who weren’t part of the $8.5 billion settlement the company reached with most private-party plaintiffs last year.
Transocean and Halliburton could be held liable for punitive damages for all plaintiffs if the companies are found to have handled their duties on the rig in a grossly negligent manner. Both were hired as contractors by BP to work on the Macondo well project.
The government and spill victims also allege that Halliburton’s cement job was defective and that Transocean employees made a series of missteps, including disabling safety systems, failing to maintain the installation properly and not adequately training its crew to handle crisis situations.
O’Bryan testified he decided to travel to the Deepwater Horizon in April 2010 -- his first-ever visit to an offshore oil rig -- because the installation “was one of the better rigs in Transocean’s fleet” in terms of its safety record.
After touring the rig, O’Bryan was standing with Kuchta on the rig’s bridge when the installation was rocked by two explosions, the executive recalled.
“All of a sudden, the rig started shaking violently,” O’Bryan said. Shortly afterward, the installation was shaken by the explosions, the executive said. “You could actually hear a hissing noise and then there was an explosion.”
Some injured crew members came to the bridge and said the rig was on fire, he recalled. At that point, he donned a life vest, O’Bryan said.
After crew members asked whether the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer and emergency disconnect system had been activated, Kuchta said they couldn’t throw the safety switches without a direct order from the rig’s top drilling manager.
That manager, Jimmy Harrell, was injured in the blast and didn’t get to bridge until several minutes after the explosion sparked a fire and left the rig without power, according to earlier testimony in the case.
“In those few minutes, however many minutes they were before Mr. Harrell got there, did Captain Kuchta at any time indicate that anybody should take any action to activate the blowout preventer?” Karis, BP’s lawyer, asked O’Bryan. “Did he in fact say the exact opposite?”
“Yes,” O’Bryan told Barbier. The executive said when Harrell finally arrived on the bridge, Harrell’s first words were to ask whether the safety systems had been activated.
“Jimmy asked had the emergency disconnect system been activated, and Captain Kuchta said no,” said O’Bryan, who was on the Deepwater Horizon bridge at the time of the disaster. “He said, ‘we need to activate it,’ and somebody reached over and hit the button.”
O’Bryan added that Kuchta was surprised when the rig lost power after the explosions and seemed at a loss about how to address the crisis. “I heard him say, this can’t be happening, we’ve lost power,” the executive recalled. “It just appeared to me that he wasn’t quite sure what to do.”
Andrew Mitchell, a veteran ship’s captain who testified for BP as the final witness in the case, told Barbier Kuchta’s inability to respond quickly to the blowout squandered precious seconds that limited the crew’s options in dealing with the fallout from the blast.
“Isn’t it true that every second wasted by the captain of this vessel not reacting to this serious emergency made that emergency more difficult to manage?” asked Conrad “Duke” Williams, a lawyer for spill victims. Mitchell agreed with Williams’s description of Kuchta’s actions.
“In your opinion, Captain Mitchell, was Captain Kuchta fit to be master of the Deepwater Horizon?” the attorney asked. Mitchell replied Kuchta wasn’t fit to be the rig’s commander.
Kuchta, along with Harrell, the rig’s top drilling supervisor, refused to testify in the case. Both men invoked their constitutional right against self-incrimination, as did more than a dozen other BP and Transocean employees associated with the Macondo project.
Barbier said after testimony in the case ended yesterday that he’ll study post-trial briefs submitted by both sides before ruling on the liability issues.
In September, Barbier is scheduled to hear testimony in a second phase of the litigation to determine how much oil gushed into the Gulf during the spill. Coupled with the judge’s liability findings, that spilled-oil calculation will determine the size of any federal pollution fine BP and its contractors may have to pay.
BP and the federal government have offered different calculations on the size of the spill, which regulators peg at more than 4.1 million barrels. The court has already approved BP’s request to be credited with having collected and disposed of about 810,000 barrels that spewed from the well. That could reduce the maximum $17 billion fine BP may face by as much as $3.4 billion.
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).