Criminal Charges Against Rig Managers in Deepwater Horizon Incident?

In my essay on the “Political Science of Industrial Safety: Have the Deeper Lessons of Deepwater Horizon Been Learned?“, I focused on the safety audit that was carried out during the morning of April 20, 2010, by a joint team of BP and Transocean executives. The general argument was that the safety audit was for ceremony, not for substance; as the visiting officials barely paid attention to unfolding drama in the mud room, where inconclusive test results about the integrity of the cement bond were being discussed.

My article did not consider the possibility of criminal charges against the BP site manager; and there is no way for a layman to distinguish between negligence and criminal negligence.

That there was simple negligence, however, can hardly be doubted; and the matter goes beyond the BP officials who have been indicted.

The Times-Picayune quotes one of the lawyers for Robert Kaluza, one of the BP defendants, as saying that “the government is trying to tell the public that 11 men died and we had the worst environmental disaster in history because two guys on a rig misinterpreted a test. It’s ludicrous.”

It may be hoped that the two-guys-on-a-rig defense will not prosper in court. Mr. Kaluza, and the BP site manager, Don Vidrine, both of whom refused to testify to Congress during the inquiry into the cause of the accident, did much more than “misinterpret at test.” They put aside—for whatever reasons or pressures—a career’s experience that would tell them that any reported pressure in a negative-pressure test of a well is prima facie evidence that the cement integrity is not secure.

In so doing, they put at risk the lives of the crew, the rig itself and the public’s interest in environmental safety. But they were not alone: The Wall Street Journal reports that “after conferring with others on the rig about the [inconclusive] results of the [well integrity] test, Mr. Vidrine gave the go-ahead to continue with operations.”

A prosecutor might well ask, Who were the others? It is already in the public record that Transocean’s staff was aware of the inconclusive tests; further, that prior to the accident Jimmy Harrell, the Transocean rig manager, had had a “skirmish” with Mr. Vidrine about the risk of proceeding without a positive test of well integrity. (Someone who had worked with Mr. Vidrine on offshore platforms years ago told me that he had an imperious, military style of management.)

The same prosecutor might want to ask Mr. Harrell and others about their choosing not to invoke their “Stop Work” authority, in effect, over-riding the decision of the BP “company man.” Was that omission negligence on their part? Was it criminal negligence? Or is the general public to conclude that “stop work authority” is a mere safety gimmick that is used for hiring and advertising but never to actually enforce safety?

Written by

George Baker

Baker & Associates offers niche-market business and policy intelligence related to Mexico's oil and gas, power and chemical industries. Over 1,000 reports have been issued in the last 20 years. Subject matter expert and publisher George Baker, who directs the firm, has carried out consulting assignments starting in the late 1970s at the height of the Oil Boom in Mexico. He brings bilingual and bicultural skill-sets to understanding and responding to challenges of business and public policy, coupled with a deep familiarity with the history and idiosyncrasies of the Mexican operating environment.

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