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Gulf oil spill: Key BP official refuses to testify

August 24, 2010 | 12:10 pm
Another BP employee is refusing to testify in the investigation into the cause of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to not produce testimony that could incriminate him.

BP’s two top officials on the rig also have refused to testify, one also taking the Fifth and the other repeatedly invoking a medical excuse.

The latest refusal to testify came from Brian Morel, a BP drilling engineer. If he had testified, Morel probably would have been asked to explain an e-mail message he wrote in which he rejected a suggestion that experts believe would have resulted in a safer and more costly well design.

Such a design would have reduced the chance of a dangerous bubble of natural gas shooting up from underneath the seafloor to the rig’s belly and exploding, according to engineering experts.

Specifically, Morel rejected a suggestion from a contracting company, Halliburton, to place 21 devices called "centralizers" in the well bore, opting to use six.

Centralizers are doughnut-shaped sheaths that surround pipes and keep them from knocking into the side of the well’s outer wall. A properly centered pipe makes it easier to seal the well with a cement mixture, which should reduce the risk of a gas blowout.

Engineers widely agree that using more centralizers is safer than using fewer. But installing the devices takes time and money, and BP employees testified that such approaches are not always necessary.

In an e-mail, Morel defended the decision to use fewer centralizers, writing, "Hopefully, the pipe stays centralized due to gravity," adding that "it's too late to get any more product to the rig."

A lawyer for Morel told a joint U.S. Coast Guard and Interior Department panel in Houston on Tuesday that his client was invoking his right not to give testimony that would incriminate himself. The panel is investigating the cause of the worst offshore oil spill disaster in U.S. history.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II in Houston
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