NEW ORLEANS – A retired BP employee who supervised drilling operations on the rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico testified Wednesday that he never felt pressure to sacrifice safety to save money, even though the project was behind schedule and over budget.
“I don’t believe in pushing people to keep schedules. I’m just not going to do it, especially if safety is involved,” former BP well site leader Ronnie Sepulvado said at a federal trial designed to assign fault for the deadly disaster to the companies involved in drilling BP PLC’s Macondo well.
Sepulvado wasn’t on the Deepwater Horizon rig at the time of the April 20, 2010, well blowout. He left four days earlier because his well control certificate was about to expire.
His replacement, Robert Kaluza, and fellow BP well site leader Donald Vidrine are charged with manslaughter in the deaths of 11 rig workers and await a separate trial. An indictment last year accuses Kaluza and Vidrine of disregarding abnormally high pressure readings that should have been glaring signs of trouble just before the blowout.
Sepulvado said the Macondo project was running behind schedule in part because a storm had damaged the rig that was drilling the well before the Deepwater Horizon was brought in to take over. He said the drilling crew also was hampered by a March 2010 “kick,” which is an unexpected flow of fluids into the wellbore.
At the start of the trial last week, a Justice Department attorney accused BP of putting profits ahead of safety in a rush to finish a project that was more than $50 million over budget at the time of the blowout.
Sepulvado, however, said he wasn’t troubled by the delays.
“Did you ever ask anyone to hurry to finish up this well because you needed to get somewhere else?” BP attorney Hariklia Karis asked.
“No, ma’am,” Sepulvado said.
“And at any time did you ever ask anyone to cut any corners to save time or money?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” he said.
Sepulvado said the rig crew reported its drilling costs on a daily basis and adhered to a BP mantra that “every dollar counts,” but not at the expense of safety.
“You don’t waste money,” he said. “To me, it means better planning to try to get equipment in and out.”
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier is hearing testimony without a jury and, barring a settlement, would decide how much more money BP, rig owner Transocean and other companies owe for their roles in the disaster. BP could be on the hook for nearly $18 billion in penalties under the Clean Water Act if the judge finds that it acted with “gross negligence.”
Barbier also heard testimony Wednesday by drilling expert Richard Heenan, a witness for the federal government. Heenan said the pressure test that Kaluza and Vidrine are accused of botching marked a “gross and extreme departure from the standards of good oilfield practice.”
The conclusion by BP supervisors and Transocean crew members that the test was successful “lacked any justification based on the basic principles of well control or physics,” Heenan added.
Transocean attorney Michael Doyen noted that the test lasted at least two to three hours.
“You don’t have any doubt that the guys on the rig were trying to get the test right?” Doyen asked.
“They would want to get it right,” Heenan said.