Lawyers taking center stage in oil-spill investigation
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 8:49 PM
HOUSTON - The Macondo well gushes no more, but the lawyers are just getting started.
They go wall to wall in a Hilton hotel conference room, sitting at long tables that face the outnumbered investigators assigned to find the cause of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon disaster. The thermometer may be hitting 100 outside, but the room is kept perfect for the men and women in power suits, many from Washington, Chicago, New Orleans and Dallas.
The investigation, a joint operation by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, is supposed to help the government determine what went wrong and recommend reforms. But the hearings have largely been taken over by lawyers for the major players in the disaster - including BP, rig owner Transocean and the contractor for the cement job, Halliburton - who are trying to prepare for what are sure to be many civil trials to come.
They are generally civil to one another, but their clients have conflicting interests, with billions of dollars at stake and a Justice Department probe shadowing everything.
"The 900-pound gorilla in the room is the criminal investigation," said Pat Fanning, the attorney for one of the top Transocean managers on the rig.
Testimony this week has focused on usual suspects: the construction of the well and maintenance of the blowout preventer. But who's to blame, what piece of equipment or procedure proved fatally deficient, or to what degree the calamity could have been foreseen are issues the lawyers will likely tangle over for years to come.
In a new twist, BP has declared that a Halliburton employee, Jesse Gagliano, who warned that the cement job on the Macondo well might not function properly, should have stopped the operation outright if he had real doubts about safety.
Gagliano testified Tuesday that he told BP engineers on April 15 that if BP proceeded with the cement job as designed, it would have a gas-flow problem. Three days later, he wrote that, with only seven centralizers to center the casing, "this well is considered to have a SEVERE gas flow problem."
Gagliano said he and the BP engineers worked together, late into the night of April 15, trying to resolve the problem. He recommended that BP use 21 centralizers to keep the casing properly positioned. But even though an additional 15 were flown to the rig, BP chose not to use them. The cementing job proceeded with six.
Under cross-examination by BP lawyer Rick Godfrey, Gagliano acknowledged that in some documents, as well as during several conference calls with BP and Transocean managers, he did not cite the gas-flow potential or raise other alarms.
"BP had made their decision," Gagliano said. "They had decided not to follow my recommendation."
After he testified, BP released a pointed statement: "If Halliburton had significant concerns about its ability to provide a safe and high-quality cement job in the Macondo well, then it had the responsibility and obligation to refuse to perform the job. To do otherwise would have been morally repugnant."