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Judge finds gross negligence caused Deep Horizon disaster

The finding of a U.S. federal judge last week put a renewed focus on what went wrong on the Deep Horizon oil rig and resulted in the explosion and massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.


Explosion and fire on the BP/Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Macondo oil fields, Gulf of Mexico. The explosion occurred April 20, 2010. Credit: US Chemical Safety Board
Explosion and fire on the BP/Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Macondo oil fields, Gulf of Mexico. The explosion occurred April 20, 2010. Credit: US Chemical Safety Board

The finding of a U.S. federal judge last week put a renewed focus on what went wrong on the Deep Horizon oil rig and resulted in the explosion and massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

A U.S. federal judge issued a 153-page ruling on Thursday, September 4 that BP was grossly negligent and even “reckless” in its decisions leading up to the blowout and fire in the Macondo oil fields southeast of Louisiana.

The result is that BP may be found liable for up to $18 billion in penalties under the U.S. Clean Water Act, depending on the end count for how many barrels of oil gushed from the deep sea well. BP has already paid up to $4 billion for the clean-up and compensation for the victims. The U.K. company is appealing the most recent ruling.

The explosion on the semi-submersible rig on April 20, 2010 killed 11 workers and injured 16 others. Oil from a huge resource under the seabed gushed into the Gulf waters for 87 days while engineers struggled to cap the well. The spill is considered the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, having killed wildlife, ruined thousands of miles of coastline around the Gulf, and deprived fishermen and others of their livelihoods.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier divided blame among three companies involved: the oil company BP was found 67 per cent to blame; Transocean, the owner of the rig, was found 30% to blame; and Haliburton, the cement contractor, was found 3% to blame. Haliburton recently settled the claim for $1.1 billion.

A report by Russell Gold in the Wall Street Journal on September 4 said that Judge Barbier’s report on the disaster “may be the most thorough and detailed reconstruction to date and includes some new conclusions.”

The report found that although possible problems with rock fracturing were showing up even 11 days before the rig blew up, BP continued to drill deeper “like a bat out of hell” for another 100 feet. As a result debris was left at the bottom of the well, which later clogged a valve. Drillers trying to clear the valve probably created a hole in the pipe. Attempts to plug the hole with cement failed, with the result that volatile natural gas rose up and ignited and blew up the platform. Reportedy BP had skipped a critical cement test, in what Judge Barbier ruled was a decision driven by the desire to save time and money.

Just hours before the blow out, an expert on the rig called an engineer in Houston to discuss some uncertain safety test results, but no pre-emptive action was taken.

BP is vigorously contesting the judge’s findings that it was grossly negligent, and is appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeal. In a statement BP says the company “believes that an impartial view of the record does not support the erroneous conclusion reached by the District Court.”

The court is scheduled to begin additional proceedings in January to determine the appropriate penalty. The maximum penalty if the court finds simple negligence is $1,100 per barrel, whereas if the court finds gross negligence or willful misconduct, the maximum penalty is $4,300 per barrel.

To read the Wall Street Journal September 4 report, click here.

To read a CBC report of September 4, click here.

To read BP’s September 4 statement, click here.

To see photographs of wildlife and damage from the oil spill, click here.