TitleDetermining how much oil spilled from BP's Gulf well 'not an easy task,' judge says
BodyDetermining how much oil was released from BP's runaway Macondo well during the 86 days crude flowed into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 will be a challenge, the federal judge overseeing the sprawling civil trial said during a status conference Thursday. "From what I'm hearing talking to counsel, that is not an easy task to calculate that," U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said from the bench. "First of all, there's no meter on that well." Highlighting that very point, lawyers for the Department of Justice, in a court filing Thursday, disclosed a report from a BP expert witness concluding that federal figures of how much oil was discharged during the spill were overestimated by 26 percent to 42 percent. Martin Blunt, a professor of petroleum engineering at Imperial College in London, calculated that 3.26 million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf from BP's ill-fated well. Government rebuttal witnesses contend between 4.5 million and 5.5 million barrels of oil flowed from the well. Barbier already has subtracted 800,000 barrels from the ultimate total, oil that was collected from a pipe by ships at the surface once a cofferdam was placed over the well. The reports were filed with the court by the Justice Department as part of its motion to overturn a decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan that would exclude some of the government's witnesses scheduled to testify in rebuttal to BP's contention that only half as much oil was released as federal officials have estimated. "The United States hereby appeals to ensure that the court has access to a fair picture of evidence supporting the parties' estimates of the cumulative discharge of oil from the Macondo well," Steven O'Rourke, a senior attorney in the Justice Department's environmental enforcement section, wrote in the filing. Rock samples versus pressure In his expert report for BP, Blunt said his estimate was based on Macondo rock samples. He said the estimates offered by federal engineering experts -- nearly doubling his own -- were based on the pressure forcing oil out of the well. He said the experts did not provide a "scientific justification" for hiking the figure, and called it "a repeated problem in the work of the government experts." "The government investigators each disregarded vital pieces of experimental evidence without justification; not all of their errors were identical, yet they arrived at the same final answer," Blunt's report states. However, government expert witness Jean-Claude Roegiers, an expert on rock mechanics and emeritus professor at the University of Oklahoma, disagreed with BP's experts that the rock pressure in the Macondo reservoir was only 6.35 "microsips," compared to an estimated 12 microsips suggested by other experts. The smaller pressure number would result in less oil flow. Roegiers said the lower BP numbers resulted from its use of rock samples from the area around the borehole that had already "been subjected to substantial drilling damage (bit vibration, drilling mud invasion, and chemical additives)." A complicated equation for fines Millions of dollars are hanging in the balance: A key part of the complex civil trial will determine penalties under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which require companies responsible for oil spills to pay fines of up to $1,100 per barrel if their negligence is found to have caused the spill, or up to $4,300 per barrel if they are found to have acted with gross negligence or willful misconduct. Barbier may also conclude that BP and other parties responsible for the spill took actions to reduce its size, or corral the oil, which could reduce the size of the fines. Barbier oversaw the first phase of the massive litigation stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 workers and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation's history. The eight-week trial, which ended April 24 -- more than three years after the disaster -- featured several expert witnesses and employees of the companies testifying about how the accident happened and answering questions about negligence. At play in the first phase of the trial were BP, which owned the drilling lease for the Macondo well; Transocean Ltd., whose Deepwater Horizon rig and employees were hired to drill the Macondo well; and Halliburton, brought on by BP to provide cement to plug the well. In the second phase, BP, the Justice Department, Anadarko Petroleum Co., which held a 25 percent ownership stake in the Macondo well, will take center stage. In his report, Blunt concluded that the federal government's expert reports were plagued by three issues, including the assumption of an unchanging outflow path before the well was shut in, "assuming that there were no impediments in oil flow in the well-bore, blow-out preventer or tubing that might have caused flow to be lower" in the 87 days. The government's reports also worked off the theory that the well's oil reservoir was completely connected to the well, with an unobstructed flow, and that the experts overstated the pressure in the reservoir, which drove the flow, Blunt's report said. Conflicting report, opinions Alan Huffman, a Houston-based petroleum geophysicist, rebutted Blunt's findings in his own report for the Justice Department, dated June 10. "I have serious concerns about two of the key inputs to his model, namely the assumptions about the reservoir volume available to flow and the compressibility of the reservoir," Huffman wrote in his report. Namely, Huffman concluded that Blunt was "underestimating significantly the total amount of oil that may have been produced from April 20 until the well was finally shut in," based on using "unreasonably low compressions and low total reservoir connectivity." Other Justice expert witnesses have offered varying opinions. Mohan Kelkar, a petroleum engineering expert at the University of Tulsa, in his rebuttal report concluded that between 4.5 million and 5.5 million barrels of oil were released during the 86-day spill. A two-part phase 2 of trial? During Thursday's status conference, Barbier, who is trying the case without a jury, suggested that phase two of the trial, slated to begin Sept. 16, could be split into two parts. Key issues are what steps BP and its partners in the drilling project took to stop the release of oil and gas, including allegations that BP and Transocean were not prepared to deal with the blowout, and how much oil was released from the time the spill began until the well was capped on July 15, 2010, then killed on Sept. 19, when a cement plug was installed through a second relief well. "I've got to say, I don't know if I'm looking forward to sitting through all that expert testimony to try to figure out how much of that oil escaped, but that's what I'll have to do, one way or the other," Barbier said. Looking beyond the trial's second phase, which is slated to last about a month, Barbier said an additional penalty phase would likely be required to determine the size of any fine under the Clean Water Act. That will be based on the second phase's determination of the amount of oil released, combined with Barbier's conclusions about liability and negligence during the first phase. Barring a settlement, if any issues remain undecided, additional court sessions could be required, which could carry the case well into 2014. Barbier had earlier considered ways of ensuring that the second phase of the trial did not drag out longer than necessary. He considered limiting witnesses and the idea that the phase "honestly could be submitted probably in writing," Shushan told trial lawyers during a working group conference May 31, according to a transcript. "I haven't discussed with him how many witnesses are being deposed this summer, but I have a feeling his inclination would not be good," Shushan said, according to the transcript. BP lawyers also provided an update on the status of state-filed lawsuits. At least 54 lawsuits related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster are pending in various courts, including 23 personal injury suits brought by oil spill response workers.
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