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Mark Bly, BP Executive, Back On The Witness Stand In Gulf Oil Spill Trial

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An internal BP probe of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico didn't explore whether decisions by upper-level management or cost cuts had a role in causing the disaster because investigators didn't have access to its partners' employees and records, a BP executive testified Thursday at a trial designed to assign blame to the companies.

Mark Bly, who led the investigation and has served as BP's global head of safety, said his team didn't have enough information to conduct a "systemic evaluation" of what caused the blowout of BP's Macondo well without cooperation from rig owner Transocean Ltd. or other companies that worked on the project.

A report by Bly's team in September 2010 focused on equipment failures and mistakes that rig workers made before the blowout triggered an explosion that killed 11 workers and led to the nation's worst offshore oil spill.

A BP policy says accident investigations should include attempts to identify any "systemic failures within the management system." Bly, however, said he and then-BP chief executive Tony Hayward got an exception to the policy and decided at the outset not to attempt a broader probe.

Bly didn't explain how they got the exception, but he said the policy allowed for one under certain circumstances. The potential for litigation, the nature of other accident investigations and the involvement of other companies were factors in seeking the exception, he testified.

"We're tasked with getting to the answer as quickly as we could, and trying to get to a position where we felt we could make good recommendations," he said. "Having done that, we did have the option to try to go further, but at that point in time, given the limitation that we've touched on, it would have been very, very difficult to do that."

In what has become known as the "Bly Report," BP took some responsibility for the web of errors and failures that led to the disaster but also assigned plenty of blame to its partners. In earlier testimony, Bly said the investigation wasn't intended to look at the disaster through the "lens of responsibility."

While questioning Bly on Wednesday, plaintiffs' attorney Paul Sterbcow read aloud from the report and asked him about its eight "key findings." One of those said BP rig supervisors and Transocean crew members botched a crucial safety test that should have showed them a blowout was brewing.

"It was an important test and it was misinterpreted," Bly said.

Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, the BP well site leaders accused of misinterpreting those test results, have been indicted on manslaughter charges and await a separate trial.

Bly was the only witness to testify Thursday, the trial's fourth day, and isn't done on the witness stand. His testimony is scheduled to resume Monday.

Attorneys for the U.S. government and lawyers for Gulf Coast residents and businesses have accused BP of putting profits ahead of safety on a project that was over budget and behind schedule.

Kevin Lacy, who served as BP's senior vice president for drilling operations in the Gulf and resigned just before the spill, testified that he felt "tremendous pressure" to cut costs. He said BP slashed between $250 million and $300 million from its Gulf drilling budget from 2008 to 2009 while at the same time its production rose by more than 50 percent.

Sterbcow asked Bly if "cost-cutting pressure" and the company's safety culture should have been part of BP's probe.

"It depends on what the investigation led you to," Bly said.

BP has said drilling in the Gulf is a team effort and its partners should share in the responsibility for the disaster. The trial is designed to assess the fault of each company involved, and billions of dollars are at stake.

Earlier this week, University of California-Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea testified that BP didn't implement a 2-year-old safety management program on the Deepwater Horizon before the explosion.

Sterbcow asked Bly if he agreed that BP's implementation of the new system was an "absolute disaster."

"No, sir, I wouldn't agree with that," Bly said. "I can speak to many positive things that were in place."

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"I think people should share information that could help learn about accidents," Bly said.

Attorneys for the U.S. government and lawyers for Gulf Coast residents and businesses have accused BP of putting profits ahead of safety on a project that was over budget and behind schedule. BP has said drilling in the Gulf is a team effort and its partners should share in the responsibility for the disaster. The trial is designed to assess the fault of each company involved, and billions of dollars are at stake.

On Wednesday, a well design expert and geophysicist who worked for Conoco and Exxon, said BP withheld critical information from oil and gas regulators and continued drilling despite clear signs of trouble before the blowout of the Macondo well.

Alan Huffman, the federal government's expert, said BP continued drilling in dangerous deep water conditions without keeping the Minerals Management Service fully informed about changes in its plans.

Huffman said his review of internal BP documents and MMS records showed the London-based oil giant engaged in a "consistent pattern of misreporting" to the federal agency and gave it a "very false impression" of what was happening on the drilling project.

"And this happened on multiple occasions ... not just on one or two," said Huffman, the second expert witness at a trial that started Monday and, barring a settlement, could last several months.

During his cross-examination, Huffman acknowledged he had never been asked to make a similar comparison of regulatory records before the Justice Department hired him.

"Are you in the business of determining whether or not regulations have been violated?" BP attorney Matt Regan asked.

"That is not my normal practice of work, no," Huffman said.

Regan also questioned why Huffman didn't thoroughly examine the actions of Transocean rig workers or compare BP's conduct to that of other offshore operators.

Huffman said BP did seek permission from MMS to change its drilling plans on some occasions. Other times, he testified, the company's engineers forged ahead with drilling the well when it was in a potentially unsafe condition without informing the agency.

"And that is not what a prudent operator does," he said.

Huffman said it was "unwise" for BP to continue drilling after rig workers detected a "kick," or unexpected increase of pressure in the well, the month before the April 20, 2010, blowout.

"This drilling ahead in this environment was not only unsafe, it violates every standard I can think of in how wells are drilled in the deep water and elsewhere in our industry," he said. "It is truly egregious to drill that extra hundred feet knowing that you could potentially lose the well in the process."

Former BP chief executive Tony Hayward also made a cameo appearance Wednesday, but he didn't attend in person. Instead, he showed up just briefly on a videotape in what may be his only appearance in the courtroom.

Hayward, who infamously said "I'd like my life back" at the height of the spill, isn't expected to take the witness stand in the high-stakes trial because he didn't have direct knowledge of the drilling operations on the Deepwater Horizon.

Still, attorneys for the U.S. government and Gulf Coast residents and businesses showed a 20-minute snippet of his deposition, projecting the video on a large white screen in the courtroom.

"I believe that the role of leaders is very important in shaping the culture of an organization," Hayward said in the videotape.

Rig owner Transocean Ltd. and cement contractor Halliburton also are defendants and their lawyers have tried to minimize their roles in the disaster.

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