In February of 2016 one of the last trials arising from the Deepwater Horizon incident was held in New Orleans. This was a criminal trial, which began in Novevmber 2013 when the Federal Government indicted the two on-duty Well Site Leaders (WSLs) for eleven counts of Seaman’s Manslaughter and eleven counts of Ordinary Manslaughter each, plus violation of the Clean Water Act. The two WSLs were the lowest-ranking BP employees associated with the event, and the indictments were made with great fanfare, Attorney General Holder travelling to New Orleans to announce them.
Seaman’s Manslaughter (technically, “Ship Officer’s Manslaughter”) is an 1852 act passed in response to large casualties incurred in the wrecks resulting from racing passenger steamboats, and requires only the showing of ordinary negligence to convict; Ordinary Manslaughter, a charge based on the deaths of the same eleven crewmembers, requires the stricter showing of gross negligence. Based on prior agreements with their employees, BP paid for their defense attorneys.
In March of 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed the Seaman’s Manslaughter charges, ruling the statute only applied to employees on the marine side of the rig and did not apply to drilling operations. After three changes in prosecution team, the Department of Justice voluntarily dismissed the Ordinary Manslaughter charges in December 2015, leaving only a charge of misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act, something ship captains typically get charged with when they discharge oily bilge water into the ocean.
The on-shift WSL pled guilty, agreed to testify for the Government, and was sentenced to probation and community service. The off-shift WSL, who had gone to his cabin three hours before the blowout, chose to fight the misdemeanor charge and was acquitted. Some facts of interest came up during the testimony in his trial and are summarized here. None of them contradict conclusions in our book, but they add extra detail.
The 8:52 PM Phone Call to Town
One hour before the blowout, the on-shift WSL (not the one being tried) called the BP Houston office to discuss the results of the second negative test, the one that was declared a success despite 1400 psi pressure showing on the drill pipe. The senior drilling engineer, who after the incident exercised his Fifth Amendment rights and to our knowledge has never spoken publicly since, was assumed by many (including ourselves) to have been looking at the real-time Sperry Sun telemetry on BP’s internal network when he was discussing the pressure anomaly with the on-shift WSL. This turns out not to have been the case.
Immediately after the incident the FBI took forensic images of a number of BP computers, including that of the senior drilling engineer. This is standard practice after an event that may have criminal aspects. The image, a copy of the contents of the computer, is kept as a master copy and copies distributed so that there is no possibility of the data being inadvertently or maliciously changed.
The defense in the WSL trial obtained a copy of the image and had it analyzed by an expert in forensic expert in computer analysis. This expert testified that the the image showed that during the time of the telephone call the senior drilling engineer was disconnected from BP’s internal network and connected to the open internet, where he was booking a vacation flight.
If the expert was correct, this means that the only description of the pressure anomaly that the senior engineer had available to him during the call was the verbal discription given by the on-shift WSL — he had no ability to examine the shape of the pressure or other curves, or move back in time to the first negative pressure test. As a consequence it is unlikely that he would have been able to apply the the full scope of his expertise to the problem the on-shift WSL was describing.
Limitations of the Sperry Sun Telemetry
In a discussion outside the hearing of the jury, the Halliburton-Sperry employee who specialized in interpreting Sperry Sun data was quoted as saying in his deposition
“I don’t believe the data we were able to collect during the negative test would allow for an accurate analysis of the negative test, whether or not there was communication with the wellbore at the time.”
This opinion reinforces the need for more comprehensive event data recording on these rigs.
The Kill Line Valve
The person leading the engineering side of the BP internal investigation (the so-called Bly report) testified that the investigation team regarded a closed kill line valve as being equally probable to a plugged kill line as a cause of the zero pressure seen on the kill line during the second negative test. He also testified that the team thought that if a kill line valve were closed, it would be the upper (surface) one closed inadvertently, instead of (as we have surmised) the lower one closed by some sort of malfunction.