Arrest of BP Engineer Exposes the Smoking Gun?

04/24/2012 06:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2012

Today, the Justice Department arrested a former BP engineer on two counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying hundreds of text messages that included details of flow rate calculations of their blown out Macondo well in the days immediately following the Gulf disaster on April 20, 2010, just over two years ago. The engineer, Kurt Mix, was a drilling and completions project engineer who worked on flow rate estimates of the well after it blew out, as well as on efforts to stop the well from flowing, including the Top Kill procedure that was attempted (and failed) during the Memorial Day weekend of that year.

The affidavit filed by the FBI supporting the arrest of Mix contained explosive details about BP's early knowledge of the well's flow rate, and that the rate was far more than it was admitting at the time, or ever has, for that matter. You'll recall that in the early days of the blowout, BP downplayed the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf, even telling the Coast Guard at one point that the well wasn't flowing at all. When it became obvious that this assertion simply wasn't true, BP slowly raised the estimate to 5,000 barrels per day, even when industry experts estimated the flow to be far higher. BP's liability and fines for polluting the water, of course, are based on how much oil was spilled.

The FBI affidavit alleged that the flow rate estimates transmitted in messages that Mix later destroyed were far above BP's public assertions. For instance, on April 21, 2010, the day after the blowout, Mix estimated the flow rate to be from 64,000 to 138,000 barrels per day. The next day, BP told the Coast Guard the flow rate was zero. According to the document filed today, Mix had done a number of estimates that he communicated to his bosses and to an outside contractor, even estimating on April 29, 2010 a flow rate possibly as high as 146,000 barrels per day.

A key point to note was Mix's work on the Top Kill. Even though BP publicly stated that they gave the procedure a success probability of 60 to 70 percent, internal discussions alleged in this affidavit were, that if the well flow was over 15,000 barrels per day, the procedure wouldn't be successful. With Mix's calculations showing as much as 146,000 barrels per day, it appears that BP attempted the procedure when they knew it would not work, sticking to the 5,000 barrel per day estimate and telling the public that all was "going according to plan".

I believe that this revelation today could be the beginning of a cascade of disclosures about what BP executives really knew in the days immediately after the blowout. Did they really know the well was flowing far more than they were saying? Did they know the Top Kill wouldn't work? If these allegations by Justice are true, this story is just beginning.