BP oil spill trial: Week two

By Whit Remer, Policy Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

As week three of the BP trial continues, observers are seeing trends emerge from inside the courtroom. The plaintiffs are focusing on two primary causes of the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion and ensuing oil spill: lack of adequate safety measures and aggressive cost cutting by BP. The defendant oil companies, namely BP, contend that while mistakes were made, their liability is offset by the negligence of subcontractors who were also working on the risky drilling venture. By diffusing responsibility, BP is attempting to spread the blame wide enough so as to avoid a finding of gross negligence for their conduct. If BP is found liable of gross negligence, their civil Clean Water Act fines could total more than $17 billion. Under the RESTORE Act, 80 percent of these fines will be used for Gulf Coast restoration.

Activists gather outside the courthouse in New Orleans (Feb. 25, 2013).

During the first two weeks of trial, expert testimony focused on BP’s aggressive drilling practices, insufficient safety plans and their negligent decisions made both on the rig and in Houston. Dr. Alan Huffman testified that the depth, complexity, pressure and heat of the BP Macondo well pushed the edges of modern technology. This type of drilling operation demanded the most rigorous and stringent safety protocols aboard any modern drilling rig. Instead, BP’s safety procedures were vague or not enforced, and the company ignored several critical federal safety regulations. Testimony provided a sequence of events and mistakes that ultimately led to the disaster, including underreporting safety logs to the government and not responding appropriately to potentially lifesaving safety alarms that sounded on the rig in the hour prior to the explosion.

The plaintiffs are also focusing on aggressive cost cutting at BP as an underlying cause to the explosion. Experts testified that cost cutting was a “root cause” of the explosion, because BP senior officials demanded an aggressive drilling schedule while cutting operational staff. Another prime example of cutting corners to save money was BP’s decision to use recycled drilling cement to seal the well. The unsuccessful cement job and lack of “spacers” in the riser pipe ultimately caused oil to begin flowing. In the coming days and weeks, the plaintiffs will likely continue to highlight that this culture of cost cutting, particularly in BP’s Gulf of Mexico operations, came at the expense of safety.

Looking forward, the Gulf Coast is eagerly anticipating a fair and robust resolution to the case. The deteriorating gulf ecosystem can’t afford to wait much longer. Litigation is a long and arduous process that could drag on for years, or even decades. We need a court-approved fair and just verdict soon so the gulf can begin restoring its natural environment, which provides so many resources on which the Gulf Coast’s economy relies.

Plaintiffs could rest their case as early as next week, at which point BP would begin calling some of their 15 expert witnesses. The trial was initially expected to last three months, but Judge Carl Barbier recently announced that he would like to wrap up by the end of April. Stay tuned for future updates on the trial.