First witness testifies in BP oil spill trial

New Orleans

BP failed to apply its own safety and risk management system to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, in what was a "tragic" and "egregious" oversight, the first witness in a long-awaited civil trial over the 2010 oil spill said.

Robert Bea, an engineering and safety expert from the University of California at Berkeley, took the stand after Judge Carl Barbier began the second day of hearings as the trial unfolding in a New Orleans courtroom.

The case, which brings together numerous claims and counterclaims, and pits the US government, the worst-affected states and scores of private plaintiffs against BP and its partners in the ill-fated deepwater drilling project, could land the London-based oil giant with billions of dollars in penalties on top what it has already spent since the spill. The incident in April 2010 led to the death of 11 rig workers and the release of millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The case will unfold in phases, with the first portion, which is expected to last three months, meant to examine the role of the companies involved.

As well as BP, they include Transocean, which owned the rig that sat atop BP's Macondo oil well; Halliburton, which was contracted by BP to cement the well hole; and Cameron International, which made the blowout preventer, the failsafe device that was meant to shut the flow of oil in case of an emergency. M-I Swaco, which provided drilling fluids and various other materials, is also party to the case.

Mr Bea – who in the past was a consultant for BP, writing reports for and making presentation to the oil giant's management – was called to the stand by the plaintiffs. He was the first witness after day one was taken up by opening statements from the various parties.

Under questioning by Robert Cunningham, a plaintiffs' lawyer, Mr Bea said that ahead of the disaster, BP had failed to implement its own safety and risk management system known as Operating Management System (OMS) at the project. In slides displayed at the trial, former BP chief executive Tony Hayward was shown as acknowledging that the OMS was the cornerstone of BP's safety regime.

"It is a classic failure of management and leadership in BP," Mr Bea, who has studied numerous disasters, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the levee breaches in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said of the company's oversight.

In an excerpt of a deposition by Mr Hayward recounted during Mr Bea's questioning, the former BP chief was shown as acknowledging that the disaster could potentially have been averted had the system been implemented.

Mr Bea, who is well-known and well-regarded in New Orleans for his work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, also touched on the culture of cost-cutting at BP, which was highlighted in the opening statement on Monday by another plaintiffs' lawyer, Jim Roy.

BP's lawyer, Robert Brock, challenged Mr Bea's testimony later in the day, suggesting during questioning that BP was in fact committed to safety, and pointing to past statements and plaudits.

The trial continues, with testimony and record depositions expected from Lamar Mckay, the head of BP America, and Mr Hayward.

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