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Posted on: June 25th, 2013

Transocean executive is grilled; BP lawyers work to poke holes in case

The Times-Picayune

By Richard Thompson

27 March 2013

The Transocean executive who led the Swiss-based company’s internal investigation into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster testified Tuesday that the drilling rig was “in really good shape” before the accident, as the company’s lawyers worked to poke holes in previous testimony that blamed the rig owner for BP’s Macondo well blowout.

Bill Ambrose, Transocean’s director of special projects, testified on the 17th day of the sprawling civil trial to determine liability for the accident and assess tens of billions of dollars in fines and damages. Ambrose was Transocean’s director of maintenance and technical support when the Deepwater Horizon caught fire and exploded April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers and leading to one of the largest oil spills in the nation’s history.

During direct questioning by Transocean lawyer Rachel Clingman, Ambrose recalled learning about the accident early the next morning.

“My wife came in and told me. She saw it on TV,” he testified. As he said it, he got choked up.

Clingman asked whether Ambrose was “eager to lead the investigation of an incident like this for the company.”

Ambrose didn’t hedge.

“No, ma’am,” Ambrose testified.

He said he agreed to take on the initiative at the request of Steven Newman , Transocean’s president/chief executive. Ambrose testified that he spent 14 months putting together the pieces of what happened on the rig, with help from up to 70 people. The report was released in June 2011.

“What were you told by Steven Newman ,” Clingman asked.

“Find the truth. He wanted to know what happened,” Ambrose testified.

BP lawyer Hariklia “Carrie” Karis sought during cross-examination to shift focus from BP, the owner of the Macondo well, to its partners in the drilling operation.

“So the truth that you found is that Halliburton , Transocean and BP’s conduct combined on the evening of April 20 to cause this horrific event?” Karis asked.

“We found areas that everybody was involved in,” Ambrose said.

During direct examination Ambrose was asked about the condition of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the wake of expert-witness testimony that labeled it unseaworthy.

Ambrose described the drilling rig as being “in good condition.”

“It’s a 9-year-old rig, so it’s not flawless, but overall it was in really good shape,” he testified. “There was nothing that we saw that would prevent operations. It was, you know, there were a couple of things outstanding, but nothing significant.”

Earlier testimony from Geoffrey Webster, a marine safety expert called by the plaintiffs’ lawyers, singled out Transocean for failing to maintain the Deepwater Horizon , having an improperly trained crew and a rig that was in poor shape.

Ambrose disputed that, saying maintenance on the rig occurred regularly.

“It’s part of what we have to do,” he said.

Such work ranged from daily tasks to more intrusive measures conducted by qualified people, like electricians and mechanics.

Ambrose also testified that the rig’s crew members were not “the kind of men who would cut corners on safety-critical equipment” or misinform regulators about maintenance work being done.

He described a July 2009 inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard that found “no deficiencies.”

Webster’s earlier testimony touched on the Coast Guard inspection, which he speculated was “cursory,” another assessment Ambrose disputed.

“In my experience with the U.S. Coast Guard , they are very professional,” he said. “They absolutely know marine vessels, and they get into details, so I don’t believe that that would be a true statement at all.”

The Deepwater Horizon rig had more than 2,000 components, he testified. Preventative efforts accounted for about 80 percent of the maintenance work done on the rig.

On the day of the explosion there were 222 overdue maintenance items on the rig, according to testimony.

“By my math, which you are welcome to challenge, that’s less than 2 percent. How is that in your experience?” Clingman asked.

“That’s actually a good number,” Ambrose said. “They are keeping control of the maintenance.”

Webster, in his report and his testimony, laid much of the blame for the disaster on Transocean.

“It is my opinion that the failures of Transocean’s management, combined with the incompetent crew onboard the ( Deepwater Horizon ), contributed significantly to this casualty. Further, the rig was not reasonably fit for its intended purpose on April 20, 2010,” the day of the explosion, the report said.

To sum up the findings of his report, Ambrose credited the rig’s crew members with swift action.

“Basically, the evacuation worked. The training worked. One-hundred-and-fifteen people made it off,” he testified. “And you look at what happened, that was such an amazing event. I’m proud of our crew for getting those people off our rig. Really proud.”

During cross-examination, plaintiffs’ lawyer John deGravelles charged that Transocean’s investigation didn’t examine “whether management failures made any contributing role to the accident.” He acknowledged that some decisions made by BP in the lead-up to drilling the well had increased risk associated with the project, but generally stopped short of saying that they were done in an effort to cut corners.

“We didn’t see anything with regards to the management system that had an impact here,” Ambrose said. “I wish I could point to one thing that we could say, ‘That’s it,’ and we could fix it, but we couldn’t.”

BP operated the Macondo well, and Transocean owned and manned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. For BP and the other companies, the first phase of the complex court case focuses on whether their actions leading up to the accident constitute gross negligence or willful misconduct.