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BP’s multibillion dollar lawsuit against Transocean – expert verdict

BY BILL CAMPBELL (RETIRED HSE GROUP AUDITOR, ROYAL DUTCH SHELL GROUP)

It should come as no surprise to the readers of this web site that BP plan to sue the owner and operator of the Deepwater Horizon Transocean.  In my opinion they will be successful in so doing.

Lost in the mass hysteria of the time, including the emotional and disproportionate reactions of the US President who saw himself in the firing line, it appeared to be universally ignored that BP were after all, in  matters related to the drilling of the well, the client, with Transocean, the Contractor.

In simple terms that we all can understand.  If for example your regional government asks a competent agent to design and build a bridge for them, and the bridge falls down due to construction flaws, all this resulting in multiple fatalities, then the client does not appear in Court, but the contractor does.  It was the Contractor who was accountable in Law for the design and construction of the bridge, not the client.

BP and Shell et al many moons ago gave up the resources they had both in assets and people to competently drill wells deep or shallow, on land or offshore.  Using the jargon of the time, drilling wells was no longer seen as a core skill anymore, and subsequently, such work was farmed out to others such as Transocean who had the assets and competency to do such work.

So BP argue that “But for Transocean’s improper conduct, errors, omissions, and violations of maritime law, there would not have been any blowout of the exploratory well,”  “Nor, but for Transocean’s misconduct, would there have been any explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon, or any deaths and personal injuries, or an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Do they have a case? Consider just 6 salient points in their favour in making an argument against Transocean.

Although there was a BP representative on board Deepwater Horizon , Transocean was responsible for the integrity testing of the well.  A failed negative pressure test being accepted as a good test was at least a shared culpability between Transocean and BP.

After the failed negative pressure test, and at a crucial period of time when the drilling mud was being replaced by seawater thus lightening the hydrostatic column, Transocean allowed mud to be exported to the support vessel thus masking the gains and losses from the active mud tanks. This amounted to gross negligence because the mistake made over the negative pressure test could have been highlighted during this safety critical activity by the mud engineer observing increasing returns from the well.

So ingress from the formation into the well went undetected over a significant period of time until mud started to spew onto the drill floor.  But this rig and its crew had experienced a number of drill kicks in the proceeding months and had thus much forewarning that his type of event could happen.  Surely therefore, it would be reasonable to expect that with an impending emergency in the form of a blowout the crew would have rehearsed what to do until it was ingrained.  But apparently their emergency procedures were inadequate.  And in any case, despite the well being aligned to the blowout surge diverter, as it should have been, they manually diverted the flow to the mud treatment skid, a decision that proved fatal because it allowed gas to migrate all over the vessel.

For many months before the disaster their were problems with the well resulting in on occasion mass ingress of gas in such volumes as to create a flammable atmosphere on the rig.  Despite this, the general platform alarm warning workers of a gas releases was muted in the accommodation. Given that drill kicks were occurring on the rig you would have expected that the emergency procedures and automatic gas detection systems would have been in perfect condition – but they were not.

The gas alarms were just that, as per their design no automatic executive action was taken by these detection system to isolate areas where sources of ignition were present and since the first gas was detected on the fateful day some 9 minutes passed before the explosion.  During this period no one took any manual action to isolate potential sources of ignition.

The Captain, the person who was charged with the health and safety of all on board, and his immediate support, were unfamiliar with the fire and gas alarms, these alarms were accepted on the bridge, but no one took any command and control of the situation.  Subsequently the explosion took place when gas entered No 3 Engine room many minutes after the first gas alarm had sounded.  With the explosion all hope of recovery of the situation was gone.

Bill Campbell

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