Recap of Day One of BP Oil Spill Trial

By Whit Remer, Policy Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

Yesterday morning kicked off the second phase of what is expected to be a four-week trial in the BP oil spill case. This phase follows the nearly two-month trial that took place earlier this year and covered all the events that caused the troubled drilling rig to explode. The second phase will cover events happening after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Hale Boggs Federal Building, U.S. Court House, New Orleans.

Phase II is broken into two mini phases: The first mini phase will cover the multiple attempts to stop the flow of oil from the well, which is known as Source Control, and the second mini phase will determine how much oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico during the 87-day ordeal, in a process called Quantification. The Source Control mini phase pits private plaintiffs, Gulf Coast states, Transocean and Halliburton (all collectively known as the Aligned Parties) against BP. The Quantification mini phase is being tried by the U.S. Department of Justice against BP. Presiding Judge Carl Barbier mentioned there would also be a third phase of trial to assess penalties in the case.

Yesterday, the Aligned Parties set the stage with opening statements that accused BP of withholding critical information about how much oil was flowing into the Gulf. The Aligned Parties called their first witness, Dr. John Wilson, an expert hydrogeologist, to testify about how predicated flow rates informed the type of engineering necessary to stop the flow of oil. Dr. Wilson testified that a technique known as “top kill” would be successful only if 15,000 barrels a day or less were spewing from the well. He went on to note that BP told the public, Congress and government officials working to stop the spill that the number of barrels of oil spilling per day was as low as 5,000 barrels. Dr. Wilson testified that the government relied on expert flow estimates provided by BP and signed off on the top kill plan only to later realize far too much oil was flowing from the well for it to be successful.

The top kill method consists of pumping heavy mud into the blowout preventer but requires enough velocity to counter the force of flowing oil. After the heavy mud is pumped in, engineers can mix an assortment of material into the mud in hopes that it will essentially clog the flow. The materials, known as “junk shot,” can be anything from golf balls to ground up paper to cloth. Unfortunately, the flow of oil was too fast for the technique to be successful. The second witness called by the Aligned Parties was Gregg Perkins, who made the colorful analogy that using the top kill method in a well that was spewing more than 15,000 barrels per day was like trying to dam the Colorado River with raisins.

Throughout the day, the Aligned Parties mixed in video deposition testimony from Steven Chu, former U.S. Secretary of Energy and Mary Landry, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral. The two high-ranking government officials both admitted that they relied on BP for important data to guide decisions on how to cap the well. The Aligned Parties seemed poised to prove that their dependence on this information, which consisted of well-flow estimates far below the actual rate of flow, led to failed multiple attempts and ultimately delayed finally capping the well by weeks.

Judge Barbier may factor in these misrepresentations when he determines BP’s level of negligence. If BP is found to be grossly negligent, their liability under the Clean Water Act could quadruple.