A BP executive who led the company's efforts to halt its massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has testified that his decisions were guided by the principle that they should not do anything that could make the crisis even worse.
James Dupree, BP's first witness for the second phase of a trial over the deadly disaster, said yesterday his teams worked simultaneously on several strategies for killing the well that blew out in April 2010.
Mr Dupree said the company scrapped plans to employ a capping strategy in mid-May because the equipment was not ready. He also said he was concerned that it could jeopardise other efforts to seal the well.
"We were very intent not to make the situation worse," said Mr Dupree, who was promoted to BP's regional president for the Gulf of Mexico after the spill was stopped.
But BP's trial adversaries have argued that the company could have stopped the spill much earlier than July 15 if it had used that capping strategy.
Earlier, an employee of the company that owned the doomed Deepwater Horizon drilling rig testified that he was surprised when BP scrapped the capping strategy his team had devised and never heard an explanation for the decision.
"We were so close. We had come a long way," said Robert Turlak, Transocean's manager of subsea engineering and well control systems.
During the first few weeks after the spill, engineers focused on two methods for stopping the flow of oil. Capping the well was one option. The other, called "top kill", involved pumping drilling mud and other material into the Deepwater Horizon rig's blowout preventer.
BP ultimately used a capping stack to stop the spill July 15 after several other methods failed.
Mr Turlak's team was working on a strategy that was called "BOP-on-BOP" because it lowered a second blowout preventer on top of the rig's failed one. He called it the "obvious solution" and said it was ready for installation in early June.
But BP concluded it was not a viable option because it could have made the situation worse and hampered other strategies if it failed. BP said the capping stack that later sealed the well was specifically designed to land on the well system above the blowout preventer.
BP employed the "top kill" method in May 2010, but it didn't stop the flow of oil. The company says its adversaries have ignored evidence that the "BOP-on-BOP" option was not approved or ready for safe installation before "top kill".
The trial's second phase opened on Monday with claims that BP ignored decades of warnings about the risks of a deep-water blowout and withheld crucial information about the size of the spill. Plaintiffs' lawyers claim BP knew the "top kill" strategy was doomed based on higher flow rate estimates that the company did not share with federal officials at the time.
US District Judge Carl Barbier, who is presiding over the trial without a jury, also heard videotaped testimony by a manager employed by cement contractor Halliburton. Richard Vargo, who assisted on the top kill attempts, said he did not learn until later that BP did not believe the procedure would work given the high flow rates.
"I'm pretty angry," Mr Vargo said, choking back tears.
The trial's first phase, which ended in April, focused on the complex chain of mistakes and failures that caused the blowout.
The second phase is divided into two segments. The first centres on BP's efforts to cap the well. The second is designed to help Judge Barbier determine how much oil spilled into the Gulf.
The US government's estimate is 70 million gallons (265 million litres) more than what BP says spilled. Establishing how much oil leaked into the Gulf will help figure out the penalties the oil company must pay, with billions of dollars at stake.
Eleven workers died in the explosion on the rig that was triggered by the blowout.
University of California-Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea, an expert witness for plaintiffs' attorneys, testified that BP did not spend any money before the Deepwater Horizon disaster to develop technology for controlling a deep-water blowout. At the time of the Macondo blowout, the company's oil spill response plan simply called for assembling a team of experts to assess the situation while drilling a relief well to halt the flow of oil.
"This is a 'think about it when it happens' plan," Mr Bea said.
During cross-examination by a BP lawyer, Mr Bea acknowledged that other offshore operators had virtually identical plans for responding to a spill. Other companies did not have capping stacks suitable for deep-water usage either, he said.