The man in charge of BP's ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig warned his boss that staff were operating in "chaos, paranoia and insanity" just days before a fatal blowout killed 11 men and caused the worst oil spill in US history, a New Orleans court heard on Monday.
In opening arguments Michael Underhill, the lawyer representing the US Department of Justice, said BP knew it was drilling a "well from hell" but that its managers refused to deviate from a "course of corporate recklessness" that ultimately led to the fatal blowout at the Gulf of Mexico well.
The company was guilty of "willful misconduct," he said. It had calculated it needed $7bn (£4.6bn) to pay shareholders their dividend and put immense pressure on staff to save money and drill faster in order to reach that target, he said. "A safety corner cut a day saved was a $1m saved for BP," said Underhill.
The civil trial began on Monday in courtroom 268 of the US district court in New Orleans after the apparent collapse of settlement talks over the weekend. This case is the first of two and will decide how this tragedy happened and who caused it to happen. A second will determine exactly how much oil was spilled. BP faces a potential fine of $17.6bn. The case will be decided by judge Carl Barbier.
"The tragedy of this case," said Underhill, is that it was caused by failures that "didn't even amount to pocket change." He told of problems that could've been solved with "as little as a 10-secondphone call" or "a 30-second walk down to the tool pusher."
An email showed the jawdropping depth of the negligence of Deepwater Horizon managers.
Underhill said the "extraordinary document … explains why 11 men needlessly lost their lives". On 17 April, [well team leader John] Guy told [operations manager David] Sims that BP's well site leaders "were at wits' end" and there was a "huge level of paranoia that was riding chaos". The well was proving impossible and they were "trying to make sense of all the insanity". "The operation is not going to succeed if we continue in this manner," he warned.
Sims responded that he had to go to dance practice in a few minutes. "I'll be back soon and we can talk. I'm dancing to the Village People," he wrote.
Just amazing. If the result weren't such a tremendous tragedy, this would all be comically absurd.