Litigation in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill trial focused on safety matters Wednesday, as plaintiffs’ lawyers worked to portray BP as a company concerned more about saving money and boosting profits than ensuring worker safety and protecting the environment from harm.
The highly complex trial began Monday with Judge Carl Barbier, who has been immersed in the oil spill litigation for nearly three years, hearing arguments from both sides. No jury is present in the trial, given the technical nature of the case and the projected three-month timeline for the first phase alone, which is designed to apportion blame for the spill among BP and its partners.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers brought their first witness to the stand, Robert Bea, an internationally prominent petroleum engineer and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, whose assessment discredited BP’s investigation of the disaster, alleging it did not address a systemic cause and was incomplete or potentially selective in its findings.
BP, in an effort to diffuse blame for the disaster, responded by having Professor Bea go through documents that conveyed how oil drillers generally rely on rig operators to manage safety systems for drilling operations. In BP’s case, some of the blame for the disaster will likely shift to Switzerland-based Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig and leased it to BP for exploratory drilling.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers also played previously recorded depositions of former BP CEO Tony Hayward, the man in charge when the Deepwater Horizon exploded on April 20, 2010. In the interviews, Mr. Hayward was asked about speeches he made at the company about cutting costs, suggesting he allowed safety issues to take a backseat to profits. Mr. Hayward responded by trying to place potentially damaging speeches and remarks in a larger context.
Mr. Hayward’s deposition was followed by a video interview of Kevin Lacy, BP’s former head of drilling and completions for the Gulf. In the video, Mr. Lacy is asked about cost cutting and its effect on maintaining acceptable levels of safety. Mr. Lacy responded, “I was never given a directive to cut corners or not deliver something unsafe. But there was tremendous pressure on costs.”
Defending BP against allegations of poor safety is proving to be a difficult task for BP attorneys so far. For instance, BP lawyers presented a company report compiled after the deadly blast at the company’s Texas City refinery, which killed 15 workers and injured 170 others in 2005. That report was introduced because it mentioned BP was “making good progress” with the safety recommendations made by an independent panel commissioned by BP after the explosion.
But plaintiffs’ lawyers used the report as an open window to point out the panel’s not-so-glowing assessment of BP’s safety culture, which said the company lacked “effective process safety leadership” and gave little attention to safety as one of its core values. In the years between the Texas City explosion and Deepwater Horizon blast, BP racked up a substantial portfolio of other disasters in Texas, Alaska, and Colorado that were either deadly or damaging to the environment, or both.