Monday, June 21, 2010

The Case Against Gross Negligence at BP

BP’s claim to solvency is based in part on the assumption that a silent partner in its out-of-control oil well will pay 25% of the costs and damages from the well. The partner‘s liability hinges, though, on BP proving that there was no gross negligence on its part. Here, collected from news reports, are some of the points that BP can make in defense of its oil well management.

  • The well had a blowout protector in place. This was a valve that, theoretically at least, might have stopped the flow of oil. The blowout protector design had been tested and shown to work in lesser depths. Tests conducted days before the explosion appeared to show that the blowout protector was partially functional at that point.
  • Within days after the explosion, BP recovered records that showed that some of the hardware on the blowout protector had been disabled prior to the explosion, enabling it to focus its efforts on the hardware that was still in place at that point.
  • Even though plugging a blown-out well at this depth was a situation that its engineers had ever tested, BP, after the explosion, quickly came up with a list of technologies that it intended to try.
  • BP had a disaster response plan which it had filed with federal regulators. Experts who have looked at the plan say it is mostly not blank, and many of the people and companies it refers to actually exist.
  • BP executives were on the platform at the time of the initial explosion. They were holding a party to celebrate the success of the well, but still, the fact that they were there at all shows that they were paying attention.
  • BP had noted that the well was producing an unusually high proportion of methane to oil. They didn’t do anything to adjust their strategy to prevent an explosion from the methane, but again, the fact they they noticed it and logged it shows that they were paying attention.
  • The well-known tendency for methane to expand explosively when rising to the surface from the depths at which the well was located had never before destroyed an oil well.
  • After a long series of safety violations in the company, including disasters and fatalities, BP executives had declared that safety would be their top priority, and had repeated that statement of policy at regular intervals.

Does BP have a case against its partner? I’m not qualified to comment on the legal fine points that form the distinction between ordinary negligence and gross negligence, but I would not be surprised if BP’s case is eventually heard by a jury, which would get to consider these points, along with other information that BP has not, to this point, released to the press.