NEW ORLEANS — A University of California-Berkeley engineer who played a prominent role in investigating levee breeches in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is scheduled to be the first witness Tuesday at a trial involving another Gulf Coast catastrophe: the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Robert Bea, an expert witness for the plaintiffs who sued BP PLC and other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, will share his theories about what caused BP’s Macondo well to blow out on April 20, 2010, provoking an explosion on the Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and spewed an estimated 172 millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf.
Bea’s testimony was scheduled for the second day of a civil trial that could result in the oil company and its partners being forced to pay tens of billions of dollars more in damages. The case went to trial Monday after attempts to reach an 11th-hour settlement failed.
The second witness slated to appear on the stand is Lamar McKay, president of BP America. The highest-ranking executive of BP scheduled to testify in the courtroom, McKay is likely to discuss corporate decisions that were made throughout the duration of the disaster. It was not clear if there would be time for his testimony Tuesday, however. Other BP officials were expected to give videotaped testimony.
In pretrial depositions and in an expert report, Bea argued along with another consultant that BP showed a disregard for safety throughout the company and was reckless in its actions — the same arguments made in opening statements Monday by attorneys for the U.S. government and individuals and businesses hurt by the spill.
Attorneys for BP tried to block the testimony of Bea, whom they accused of analyzing documents and evidence “spoon-fed” to him by plaintiffs lawyers. BP accused Bea and the other expert, William Gale, a California-based fire and explosion investigator and consultant, of ignoring the “safety culture of the other parties” involved in the spill, in particular Transocean Ltd., the drilling company running operations aboard the Deepwater Horizon.
Gale does not appear on a list of potential witnesses to be called during the trial.
Just last year, Bea testified for plaintiffs who sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over broken levees in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
In opening statements Monday, U.S. Justice Department attorney Mike Underhill said the catastrophe resulted from BP’s “culture of corporate recklessness.”
“The evidence will show that BP put profits before people, profits before safety and profits before the environment,” Underhill said. “Despite BP’s attempts to shift the blame to other parties, by far the primary fault for this disaster belongs to BP.”
BP attorney Mike Brock acknowledged that the oil company made mistakes. But he accused Transocean of failing to properly maintain the rig’s blowout preventer, which had a dead battery, and he claimed cement contractor Halliburton used a “bad slurry” that failed to prevent oil and gas from traveling up the well.
BP has already pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other criminal charges and has racked up more than $24 billion in spill-related expenses, including cleanup costs, compensation for businesses and individuals, and $4 billion in criminal penalties.
But the federal government, Gulf Coast states and individuals and businesses hope to convince a federal judge that the company and its partners in the ill-fated drilling project are liable for much more in civil damages under the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations.
One of the biggest questions facing U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who is hearing the case without a jury, is whether BP acted with gross negligence.
Under the Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a minimum of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil; the fines nearly quadruple to about $4,300 a barrel for companies found grossly negligent, meaning BP could be on the hook for nearly $18 billion.
The judge plans to hold the trial in at least two phases. The first phase, which could last three months, is designed to determine what caused the blowout and assign percentages of blame to the companies involved. The second phase will determine what efforts the companies made to stop oil from spilling, and how much crude actually spilled into the Gulf.
During opening statements, BP and its partners pointed the finger at each other in a tangle of accusations and counter-accusations. But BP got the worst of it, from its partners and the plaintiffs in the case.
Jim Roy, who represents individuals and businesses hurt by the spill, said BP executives applied “huge financial pressure” to “cut costs and rush the job.” The project was more than $50 million over budget and behind schedule at the time of the blowout, Roy said.
“BP repeatedly chose speed over safety,” Roy said, quoting from a report by an expert who may testify.
Roy said the spill also resulted from Transocean’s “woeful” safety culture and failure to properly train its crew. And Roy said Halliburton provided BP with a product that was “poorly designed, not properly tested and was unstable.”
Brad Brian, a lawyer for Transocean, said the company had an experienced, well-trained crew on the rig. He said the Transocean workers’ worst mistake may have been placing too much trust in the BP supervisors on the rig.
“And they paid for that trust with their lives,” Brian said. “They died not because they weren’t trained properly. They died because critical information was withheld from them.”
A lawyer for Halliburton defended the company’s work and tried to pin the blame on BP and Transocean.
“If BP had shut in the well, we would not be here today,” Halliburton’s Donald Godwin said.
Brock said Transocean’s crew members ultimately were responsible for well control on the rig and didn’t need permission from BP supervisors to shut in the well.
“Shut in the well, then seek advice,” he said.
Underhill, the Justice Department attorney, heaped blame on BP for cost-cutting decisions made in the months and weeks leading up the disaster. He said two BP rig supervisors, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, disregarded abnormally high pressure readings that should have been glaring indications of trouble.
Kaluza and Vidrine have been indicted on federal manslaughter charges.
The 2010 spill fouled marshes, killed wildlife and closed fishing grounds. Scientists warn that the disaster’s full effect may not be known for years. But they have reported dying coral reefs and fish afflicted with lesions and illnesses that might be oil-related.