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A few weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded with the loss of 11 lives, Timmy Quirk, Halliburton’s Louisiana-based area laboratory manager for the Gulf of Mexico, took a call from his colleague Ronnie Faul.
Halliburton had been running some tests in Oklahoma on the foaming cement slurry – a mixture of cement, water and additives – that it had used at the disaster-hit Macondo well. Now Mr Faul said they wanted the Louisiana lab to run similar tests so they could compare results, according to a videotaped court deposition given by Mr Quirk.
In one sense, the tests were irrelevant. The time to make sure of the cement seal of the well, intended to prevent escapes of oil and gas, was before the accident.
However, the conduct of those tests and the handling of the results could become crucial details in the mammoth damages case that will come to court in New Orleans next February, described by some as the most complex trial the US has ever seen.
Mr Quirk conducted the test as he was asked, he said, and rang Mr Faul to discuss the results. However, in a breach with usual practice, he did not write up a report. He passed on some results over the phone and then threw away both the samples tested and the rough notes he had made.
“From what I can recall, we felt … that the slurry actually looked pretty decent,” Mr Quirk said, but there appears to be no written record to show that.
Rickey Lynn Morgan, a global adviser on cementing for Halliburton, told a similar story in his taped deposition. He was also called by Mr Faul after the accident and asked to give his opinion on cement slurry mixed to the same recipe as that used at Macondo.
When Mr Morgan mixed it up, he said, he thought the slurry seemed not as thick as he had expected. When they spoke again on the phone, Mr Faul suggested that he put his conclusions in an email, but Mr Morgan decided not to.
As he explained in his deposition: “I didn’t want to put anything on an email that could be twisted and turned … taken out of context.” He clarified later in his deposition that he was worried about his results being misinterpreted in the trial. He took no notes or pictures, he said, and threw the test sample away.
The failure of the cement seal at Macondo was not the only cause of the disaster. Mistakes made by BP and Transocean personnel in interpreting their test of the seal were also critical.
However, evidence of mistakes made by Halliburton, and suggestions that it has not been fully open, are likely to be helpful to BP’s effort to show that although it was in charge of the project as operator of the well, it is not the only company that should bear the burden of damages and costs.