Recap of Day Four of BP Oil Spill Trial

By Whit Remer, Policy Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

Testimony wrapped up this afternoon for the Source Control segment of the second phase of the BP oil spill trial. Phase I of the trial, which lasted nearly two months earlier this year, covered events that caused the rig to explode by focusing on BP’s corporate culture, drilling practices, and safety plans.

Currently, the trial is in its second phase. Judge Carl Barbier is hearing testimony on BP’s efforts to stop the flow of oil (Source Control) and expert opinions on how much oil spilled (Quantification).  The Source Control segment kicked off Monday and has focused on the engineering operations the company attempted to seal the well.  Experts offered different opinions on why it took so many attempts and 87 days to finally stop the oil spill.

The Aligned Parties spent much of their time pressing BP on why an operation known as “top kill” failed. Top kill pumps heavy mud from a ship on the ocean’s surface down into the leaking well to stop the leak. For the technique to be successful, the momentum of the mud must be greater than that of the leak. Information about the flow rate of the well is, therefore, extremely important.  All parties understood the operation would only be successful if less than 15,000 barrels of oil per day were leaking. The actual number, which is still disputed, was much higher and eventually caused the operation to fail. The Aligned Parties contend BP knew the flow was higher than the purported 5,000 barrels a day that the company cited.

Each side in the case had 15 hours this week to present their evidence and witnesses.  BP spent the majority of its time trying to prove the company was following all government regulations and industry standards at the time of the blowout. Much of the testimony today was given by Iain Adams, an expert for BP on well control. Adams testified that it was simply not possible to have prefabricated the kind of engineering equipment needed to stop the well prior to the Macondo well blowout. The flow was eventually stopped when BP placed a capping stack on the leak. The Aligned Parties contend that considering the depth and high risk associated with deepwater drilling, that kind of capping stack should have been envisioned by the company and on call for emergencies.

Decisions like BP’s preparedness for a deepwater disaster and BP’s corporate culture are important factors Judge Barbier may consider when determining whether the company should be found grossly negligent for their part in the disaster.  That ruling, in turn, is important for coastal restoration because Judge Barbier must assess civil Clean Water Act fines, which are based on the amount of oil spilled and “level of culpability,” or simply put, blame. Under the RESTORE Act, the civil Clean Water Act fines that BP pays can be used for coastal restoration.

The next three weeks of evidence will focus on the amount of oil spilled. That portion of the litigation is being spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Judge Barbier will likely issue a ruling on the negligence and quantification issues before the third phase of trial – the Penalty Phase – kicks off. That third phase has not been scheduled yet.