BP Decision Prompted Cement-Mixture Changes, Witness Says

BP Plc’s rejection of calls for more stabilizers in the Deepwater Horizon rig’s drilling operations prompted last-minute changes in the cement mixture that’s designed to seal the well, a witness testified.

Jesse Gagliano, a Halliburton Co. engineer who oversaw the Macondo well’s cement work, said testing showed the mixture was stable when it was pumped into the hole hours before a fatal blast ripped through the offshore rig and sent millions of barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

When Gagliano learned BP ran six stabilizers into the well rather than the 21 he had recommended, he adjusted “the recipe of the cement design,” the engineer told a judge in New Orleans today at a trial to determine liability for the disaster. The stabilizers center the drilling pipe in the well and help the cement seal it against blowouts.

The testimony comes as BP starts its sixth week of trial over claims by oil spill victims and the U.S. that the London-based oil company was grossly negligent in its handling of the well and was responsible for the April 20, 2010, explosion that caused the worst offshore spill in U.S. history.

The blowout and explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and sent waves of oil into the Gulf, killing fish and waterfowl. The accident sparked hundreds of lawsuits against well-owner BP; Houston-based Halliburton; and Vernier, Switzerland-based Transocean Ltd., the Deepwater Horizon’s owner.

Liability Issues

The liability trial began Feb. 25. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier will determine responsibility for the disaster and 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.

Lawyers for the U.S. and spill victims have argued BP was over budget and behind schedule on the deep-water Macondo well off the Louisiana coast, prompting the oil company to cut corners and ignore safety tests showing the well was unstable.

Foaming Cement

They also allege Halliburton’s cement job was defective and that Transocean employees made a series of missteps on the rig, including disabling safety systems, failing to properly maintain the installation and not adequately training its crew to handle crisis situations.

Gagliano originally declined to testify at a 2011 pre-trial deposition by invoking his constitutional rights against self-incrimination. He later changed his mind and agreed to appear before Barbier.

Gagliano, who graduated from Louisiana State University with an industrial engineering degree, testified he recommended using a special type of foaming cement in the well after learning cracks were developing in the underwater reservoir.

Technical Adviser

The Halliburton technical adviser said he adjusted the cement mixture April 19, 2010, after learning BP officials decided to forgo the well’s extra stabilizers. The new mixture was designed to seal the brittle rock formation without worsening cracks from drilling, he added. The rig crew finished pumping the cement into the hole in the early hours of April 20, according to testimony in the case.

Earlier witnesses said BP officials on the rig praised the cementing job in e-mails immediately after it was completed the day of the blast.

Nathanial Chaisson, a Halliburton manager who oversaw cementing work at the Deepwater Horizon, testified last week that BP’s decision to cut down on the number of stabilizers might increase the risk of a blowout.

Even though he didn’t agree with BP officials’ call on the extra stabilizers, Gagliano said today he didn’t believe that decision put the rig crew’s lives in jeopardy.

Recommendation Ignored

Did BP managers’ decision to ignore his recommendation on the stabilizers put workers’ “lives in danger?” Donald Godwin, a Halliburton lawyer, asked the engineer.

“No,” Gagliano replied.

Lawyers for spill victims are seeking to convince Barbier that BP’s decision to forgo the extra 15 stabilizers was evidence of the company’s push to cut corners at the Macondo well because of project delays.

On cross-examination, Gagliano said even with the hindsight of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he wouldn’t have changed the cement mixture used at the installation.

Paul Sterbcow, a New Orleans-based attorney for spill victims, questioned whether Gagliano was asked to conduct stability tests on the cement mixture in the wake of the explosion.

“Nobody asked me” for such testing, Gagliano said.

“Bingo!” Sterbcow replied.

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).

(Updates with details from engineer’s testimony starting in 10th paragraph.)
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