Tuesday, August 24, 2010

BP Engineer pleads the Fifth to avoid panel testimony

When a Congressional committee released a cache of BP, Transocean and Halliburton documents, BP engineer Brian Morel gained some notoriety as the author of the “nightmare well” and other damning correspondence.  Adding to his notoriety today, Mr. Morel has elected to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to not answer questions from a joint federal panel investigating the causes of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, explosion and fire that killed 11 men and set off the nation’s worst marine oil spill.

A key witness in the federal investigation of what went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig has pleaded the Fifth to avoid testifying in Houston on Tuesday.

Brian Morel, a BP engineer who was part of a team that designed the Macondo well that blew April 20, is the second witness to invoke his constitutional right to not answer questions from a joint Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management panel.

William W. Taylor, Morel's attorney, appeared before the panel Tuesday and said Morel would have declined to answer any questions from the panel, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

For me, it’s really hard to blame him.  I’ve read the emails in question, along with most of the other documents released by Henry Waxman and Bart Stupak.  The emails, documents and correspondence released by the two Democrats are obviously cherry-picked for their bombshell factor.  In my opinion, Morel comes across as a mid-level project engineer who, faced with a costly project running badly behind schedule, tried to please superiors by solving difficult problems the best way he could given the time and money constraints imposed on him from above.

I just don’t buy the meme that Morel was somehow criminally negligent—that he knew there were life-threatening problems aboard the rig and callously decided to ignore them.  Engineers are a very, very conservative bunch.  They  just don’t behave that way.

Two things are coming out of the Marine Board hearings:

  1. BP and Transocean management made more than one series of cascadingly bad decisions, circumventing basic safety protocol and threatening engineering discipline.
  2. The captain of the rig, Curt Kuchta, was ostensibly responsible for the safety of operations aboard his vessel, but BP and Transocean management policies left Kuchta with little to no control over the highest risk activity—drilling the well.

The growing body of evidence supporting these two conclusions is much more damning than embarrassing emails written by a project engineer.  If the captain is responsible for the safety of the ship and crew, then all activities conducted aboard that vessel are under his control, and his control only.  To allow a disconnect between vessel command and the activities that occur aboard the vessel is inviting disaster, and disaster is what they got.

Morel is a little guy, caught in the middle.  BP and Transocean would like nothing better than to throw Morel to the wolves, so Morel pleading the Fifth here makes perfect sense.  Should he have exercised better engineering judgment?  Probably so.  But the environment he was forced to exercise that judgment in was not one of his creation.

That responsibility goes way up the food chain from Morel.


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