By TOM FOWLER
NEW ORLEANS -- Transocean failed to train its drilling rig
crews properly and didn't maintain key safety equipment on the
doomed Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, leading to the deadly
2010 explosion and oil spill, a lawyer representing Gulf Coast
During opening statements of a trial over liability, Jim
Roy, a lawyer for companies suing BP, Transocean, Halliburton
and others, cited a string of prior incidents in Federal
District Court that he said showed the rig owner was grossly
negligent leading up to the accident.
Information about close calls on other rigs wasn't passed
along, Mr. Roy said, adding that just a month before the April
2010 accident, the Transocean crew on the Deepwater Horizon
failed to catch a sudden surge of natural
gas from the well they were drilling, indicating the
company had "a chronic problem."
Mr. Roy was the first lawyer to make an opening statement on
the first day of the civil trial aimed at determining the
degree of culpability BP and the other companies have for the
disaster, which killed 11 workers and unleashed the worst
offshore oil spill in US history.
A second trial, scheduled for the fall, will determine how much
oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. Together, these cases will
determine the size of fines companies face under the Clean
Water Act, which could range as high as $17.6 billion.
BP, which hired Transocean and Halliburton to work on
drilling its deep-water oil well, has argued the fines would
likely be less than $5 billion. The company will get 90 minutes
to put on its opening statement Monday afternoon.
Transocean, which presented its opening statement Monday
morning, rebutted the claims against the company's rigs and its
crews. The Coast Guard, federal safety regulators and BP's own
management considered the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig "what
'good' looked like," said Brad Brian, a lawyer for Transocean.
He outlined details of Transocean's safety systems, and
emphasized that BP had primary responsibility for the design of
the well and for final safety decisions.
"BP took a series of unconscionable risks with what it knew
was an exceptionally dangerous well," Mr. Brian said.
Mr. Brian focused on a 10 minute ship-to-shore phone call
between two BP engineers, Mark Hafle and Donald Vidrine, less
than an hour before the explosion. Mr. Vidrine allegedly talked
about odd results from a key safety test, results that Mr.
Hafle noted didn't seem to be appropriate.
"In many ways, it's a microcosm of what BP did wrong on this
well and why Transocean and its crew truly are victims of BP's
misconduct," Mr. Brian said. Instructing the crew to go ahead
with its work in the wake of these test results "was reckless,
in utter and wholesale disregard of the facts."
Michael Underhill, the Justice Department's lead civil
attorney in the case, also focused on that conversation as one
of several places where the accident could have been
"That conversation we will show should have prevented the
tragedy, the need for any of us to be in this courtroom today
and for the next 3 months," Mr. Underhill said. "They had a
conversation that could have saved eleven lives, saved the
Gulf, saved the people of the Gulf from a catastrophe."
The government plans to "show that a long series of missteps
and reckless decisions by BP taken together demonstrate willful
misconduct," he said. "We will show that individual decisions
made by BP standing alone constitute gross negligence."
BP has already agreed to pay more than $30 billion in fines,
settlements and cleanup costs for the well blowout and the
resulting Gulf of Mexico oil spill, including $4 billion to
settle criminal charges related to the accident. Transocean has
agreed to $1 billion in civil fines and $400 million in
Witness testimony is expected to begin on the Tuesday,
starting with Robert Bea, a professor of civil and
environmental engineering from the University of California,
Berkeley. He will likely be followed by Lamar McKay, chairman
and president of BP Americas. A previously taped questioning of
former BP chairman, Tony Hayward, will be played Tuesday.
Despite the start of the trial, settlement discussions are continuing,
according to people familiar with the matter. The Justice
Department and Gulf Coast states have considered offering BP a
deal under which the company would pay $16 billion to settle
The settlement offer would cover potential fines owed by BP
under the Clean Water Act, and payments under an environmental
evaluation known as the Natural Resources Damage Assessment,
these people said.
Dow Jones Newswires