(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the March 18, 2013 edition.)
Week three of the Gulf oil spill trial under Judge Carl Barbier in U.S. District Court in New Orleans focused in part on Halliburton's role in the April 20, 2010 disaster. And outside experts testified about other companies and how they contributed to the Macondo well explosion that day. In a trial that began on Feb. 25 without a jury, Barbier is determining blame in the calamity that took eleven lives and caused the nation's worst offshore spill.
The corporate players are BP and it contractors on the well. Halliburton provided cement to BP, which leased the Macondo site in the Gulf from the federal government. Transocean owned the Deepwater Horizon rig and was hired by BP to drill the well. Cameron produced the blowout preventer sold to Transocean. And M-I Swaco provided drilling fluids.
On Monday, attorneys questioned Tim Probert, Halliburton's president of strategy and corporate development, about tests on cement following the Macondo explosion. Under a federal-court preservation order in late April 2010, the company was required to hold cement and additives used at the Macondo site. But some of the samples were later removed by Halliburton employees for testing, and test results weren't recorded. BP in court papers filed in late 2011 alleged that Halliburton destroyed data from tests on cement slurry used at the Macondo.
Probert was asked in court Monday if he knew about off-the-record tests done by Halliburton employees after April 20, 2010. He said "yes, I did become aware of some irregularities in the testing post the incident through counsel, through regulatory briefings, and I think it was from some Securities and Exchange Commission files as well."
When asked Monday "were you angry when someone told you two years later, after you had testified, that in fact evidence had been destroyed?" He said "yeah, obviously it doesn't make you feel happy." He had testified at Congressional hearings on the spill in May 2010.
On Monday and Tuesday, Tom Roth, Halliburton's vice president of cementing, told the court about "red flags for BP" at the Macondo well. When questioned about those flags, he said "they were indicators that the cement placement was going to be a job that would have a low probability of success. It would take perfect conditions for a successful cement job under those conditions."
Roth was asked "if these were red flags for BP, why weren't these red flags for Halliburton and why didn't Halliburton use its 'stop work' authority?" Roth said "because at the end of the cement job, the well is dead. The well has a full column of mud. There has been no flow."
Roth was also questioned about a mid-April 2010 email from BP drilling engineer Brian Morel to his boss, senior drilling engineer Mark Hafle, saying "Jesse isn't cutting it anymore," referring to Halliburton technical adviser Jesse Gagliano--who worked in BP's Houston office. The bottom of Morel's email said, "I asked for these lab tests to be completed multiple times early last week, and Jesse still waited until the last minute as he has done throughout this well. This doesn't give us enough time to tweak the slurry to meet our needs."
Roth was asked about tests conducted on the cement slurry before the late April 20, 2010 explosion. Results from three of four tests showed the mixture was unstable.
In a fresh development last week, Halliburton lawyer Donald Godwin said in an email to the court late Wednesday that Halliburton was investigating whether cement samples found that day at its lab in Broussard, La. should have been turned over under earlier subpoenas. After court testimony from Halliburton's officers early last week, the company's attorneys consulted the lab and learned that material from the Kodiak well was still at the facility. BP and contractors drilled the Kodiak in 2008, and leftover material from it was used at the Macondo well.
But Godwin told Judge Barbier Thursday that the Kodiak materials located Wednesday weren't used at the Macondo and had been held in segregation. "They have not been touched," he said. "They have been sitting there." Godwin said he wanted to give the court full disclosure on the matter. He also said Halliburton believes the findings at Broussard Wednesday aren't relevant to the current trial.
In testimony Wednesday, Halliburton/Sperry Drilling mug-logger Joe Keith said he began his April 20, 2010 shift on the Deepwater Horizon at 6:00 p.m. Under examination, he agreed that many simultaneous activities on the rig that evening hampered how he typically monitored for a kick. A kick, an entry of gas or fluid into a well, can cause a blowout. A "displacement" of drilling mud with seawater was underway at the well that day and evening, along with other procedures because the rig was about to be moved to a different location. In his almost 20 years of working offshore, Keith had never seen so much activity at once during a displacement.
Keith detected no signs of a kick from the data he received in his mud log office that evening. But at 9:30 p.m., "I heard the sound of rain and so forth, and then the gas came in the unit," he said. "I noticed they turned the pumps off." Drilling mud was raining down. Keith fled his shack, assisted other crew members and escaped by life boat to the offshore vessel Damon Bankston. The rig exploded at 9:49 or 9:50 p.m. Keith testified that in all his years on the job, he'd never missed a kick.
When asked why the Macondo was called "the well from hell," Keith said "the original rig that drilled the first few sections had trouble when they had to set, I think it was, the 20-inch casing. They had to set it a little bit higher because, I think, they took a shallow hazard kick. The rig might have gotten damaged in a storm, and they got the Horizon to take its place. As soon as we latched up to it with the blowout preventers, they accidentally pressured up the wrong way." He added "and then on every wellbore section, we had problems--lost returns, kicks, getting stuck, loss circulation materials, gas problems." Keith now works for Halliburton/Sperry on land, doing technical support in Broussard.
Four employes of Halliburton, the world's largest cementing service to the oil and gas industry, were on the Macondo rig when it exploded, and all four survived.
Early last week, mechanical engineer Rory Davis, a federal expert witness on blowout preventers, continued his court testimony from the week before. He said Transocean's lack of maintenance on the blowout preventer's batteries and Solenoid 103, a current-carrying coil of wire, kept the BOP from functioning properly. Cameron manufactured the BOP sold to Transocean, which was responsible for maintaining the rig and the BOP.
Davis testified that hydrocarbons were already above the BOP and in the well's riser pipe on April 20, 2010 when the BOP's annular preventer--a bag-type or spherical preventer to stop the well's flow--was first activated. Hydrocarbons in the riser caused explosions on the rig, he said. No Cameron employees were on the rig when the disaster occurred.
Two days after the Macondo blowout, when an automatic function activated its shears, the BOP didn't have the power to sever the well's drill pipe, which was leaning too far for a clean cut, Davis said. The rig had drifted off location within hours of the explosion. The off-center drill pipe prevented the BOP's blind shear rams--the pressure-control equipment needed to seal the well--from closing the wellbore. Better BOP shears could have sealed the well, Davis said.
In early September 2010, the Macondo's BOP stack was raised from the Gulf and transferred to the NASA-Michoud facility in New Orleans for forensic analysis.
On Tuesday, mechanical engineer Gregg Perkin, a plaintiffs' expert witness on blowout preventers, said operators weren't able to control the BOP on April 20, 2010 because its MUX or multiplexer cables didn't work. "An acoustic trigger may have been, or probably would have been, a way to activate the BOP" without the MUX cables, he said. BP and Transocean didn't install an acoustic trigger on the BOP. Acoustic triggers aren't required or used in the Gulf of Mexico but they are common on rigs in the North Sea and Brazil.
When asked if acoustic triggers can receive false signals, Perkin said Tuesday the trigger has potential problems but "having a backup system, rather than no backup system, is a preferred solution."
On Thursday, plaintiffs' expert Geoff Webster, a marine safety expert, said Transocean shouldn't have operated the Deepwater Horizon for nine years without bringing it ashore for maintenance and repairs.
The spill trial will continue Monday through Thursday into May at the federal courthouse on Poydras St. unless a settlement is reached before then. end