Emails that attorneys representing a defendant in the BP oil spill case plan to introduce in February show for the first time that the oil company knew the massive scale of the 2010 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico weeks earlier than previously disclosed.
BP has long maintained that it provided full disclosure to the public and the federal government about its knowledge of the spill’s extent and did so promptly. The emails suggest otherwise.
BP has said in the past that it learned of the spill's full extent months after the April 2010 blowout. But the emails indicate that the company knew almost immediately after the drilling rig exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring 17, that the spill may be extraordinarily large.
BP pleaded guilty in mid-November to more than a dozen felony charges related to the spill, including lying to Congress about the size of the leak, as part of a wide-ranging deal settling the company's corporate criminal liability. Justice Department officials said a probe of individual criminal activity related to the spill is ongoing and may result in more indictments.
Attorneys for one of those charged, a former BP engineer named Kurt Mix, a resident of Katy, Texas, are defending charges that Mix destroyed evidence showing that BP covered up the true extent of the 2010 spill. The lawyers asked a federal judge in New Orleans on Friday for permission to introduce at trial thousands of previously undisclosed emails and internal documents tied to the company's efforts to measure the undersea leak -- documents they say will exonerate Mix.
Mix faces two felony counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying hundreds of text messages sent to a supervisor during the the three-month gusher, including messages indicating that the flow of oil was far higher than BP publicly estimated at the time. His trial is scheduled for February.
Defense briefs filed on Friday and last week by Mix's legal team contain new details about BP's extensive internal efforts to measure the size of the leak, which federal prosecutors contend were deliberately hidden from federal officials, Congress and the public. Mix did, indeed, share information with federal officials about the true size of the oil leak during and after the spill -- and that he therefore wasn’t part of a cover-up, his attorneys argue.
Just two days after the rig explosion, Mix emailed a projection to a supervisor estimating the runaway well could be leaking from 62,000 barrels per day to 146,000 barrels per day. Two days later, BP executives told the Coast Guard their best estimate for the leak was 1,000 barrels per day. A federal scientific group concluded after the well was capped that the flow was 62,000 barrels per day at the beginning of the disaster.
In another email, dated May 10, 2010, an executive at a Norwegian energy consulting firm said he had analyzed video of the undersea leak sent to him by Mix. "I do not think it can be ruled out that the flow at seabed is in the order of 40,000" barrels per day, said the executive, whose name is redacted in Mix's brief.
Four days later, Bob Dudley, BP's current chief executive, appeared on MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell and defended the company's flow rate estimate of 5,000 barrels per day, which it had provided to Congress and federal officials for weeks as the best estimate of the size of the leak. Independent experts saying the oil flow was much higher were "scaremongering,” Dudley said.
"Five thousand barrels a day, while inexact, is the best estimate of the industry experts," Dudley said.
A spokesman for BP declined to comment on the emails in Mix's legal briefs, or on the ongoing Justice Department probe.
In its guilty plea in November, BP acknowledged that it misled Congress about the size of the leak. But the only company executive indicted for lying about the flow estimates is David Rainey, a senior vice president who was BP's second in command in the oil spill response.
Rainey was charged in November with two felony counts of obstruction of justice for lying to Congress and federal officials about internal BP attempts to measure the size of the leak. His trial is scheduled for Jan. 28, but his attorneys on Thursday requested a postponement.
Rainey maintains his innocence and is prepared to fight the charges at trial, said Brian M. Heberlig, one of his attorneys. "There's no plea in the works," Heberlig said.
Joan McPhee, an attorney for Mix, said neither the defense nor prosecutors had objected to Mix’s February trial date, but declined to comment further.
In the legal brief filed on Friday, Mix's legal team said the deletion of text messages by Mix were inadvertent and had nothing to do with BP's guilty plea to obstruction of Congress. The government has only accused Mix of deleting text messages -- not deleting emails or any other document.
"The relevant question in this case is not whether BP executives lied to Congress or had a motive to do so, but whether Kurt Mix -- a non-executive line engineer -- had any plausible motive to corruptly obstruct the government's inquiry into such conduct by others," Mix’s lawyers said in their brief.
In a sworn statement released in April after Mix’s indictment, Barbara O’Donnell, an FBI special agent, said Mix deleted numerous electronic messages related to the spill, after being “repeatedly informed of his obligation to maintain such records.”
Critics of BP praised the ongoing criminal prosecutions over the flow rate, saying it may shed important new light on the energy giant's corporate culture.
"This is a central issue. It shows just how morally and ethically bankrupt institutions within BP were," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been harshly critical of BP's safety and environmental record.