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Transocean CEO testifies on cause of gulf disaster

NEW ORLEANS — Transocean employees should have done more to detect signs of trouble before the company’s drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, killing 11 workers and triggering the nation’s worst offshore oil spill, the company’s chief executive testified Tuesday.

But the Swiss-based drilling company’s own investigation of the disaster didn’t find any mistakes beyond the rig floor, Steven Newman said. He testified on the 14th day of a trial designed to determine the causes of BP’s well blowout and to assign fault to the companies involved.

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Newman said Transocean didn’t identify any ‘‘management failures’’ that led to the blowout.

‘‘I think we had a good system in place,’’ he said.

Newman testified that Transocean agreed in January to plead guilty to a criminal charge of violating the Clean Water Act because its rig workers on the Deepwater Horizon played a role in botching a crucial safety test before the blowout.

‘‘Do you blame the crew that night?’’ Transocean attorney Brad Brian asked Newman.

‘‘Do I blame the crew? Do I wish the crew would have done more? Absolutely. I am not sure that that’s the same emotional content as blame,’’ Newman said.

Newman, however, said BP ultimately was responsible for deciding how to perform the safety test and for determining whether it was successful.

Two BP rig supervisors, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, are charged with manslaughter in the 11 rig workers’ deaths and await a separate trial. An indictment last year accused Kaluza and Vidrine of disregarding abnormally high pressure readings during the test.

No Transocean employees have been charged with crimes, but in addition to the guilty plea, the company agreed to pay $1.4 billion in criminal and civil penalties as part of a settlement with the Justice Department.

BP’s internal investigation of the blowout also spared its own upper-level managers from any blame. Instead, the London-based oil giant issued a report that outlined a series of mistakes by rig workers and faulted decisions by other companies.

Newman touted the company’s safety culture, saying any rig worker is empowered to halt a drilling operation. If a worker sees any cause for concern, he said, ‘‘You not only have the right but the obligation to call a timeout.’’

He also praised the Deepwater Horizon for its ‘‘exemplary track record’’ before the Macondo blowout and for doing ‘‘some pretty amazing things,’’ including drilling a different BP-owned well in the gulf to a record depth of 35,050 feet in 2009.

‘‘The Deepwater Horizon was one our best performing rigs,’’ he said.

Elsewhere, 2009 was a rough year for Transocean. Newman said the company temporarily suspended operations on its entire fleet of rigs after four workers were killed in separate incidents.

‘‘I don’t think there’s any other conclusion you can draw than we had a problem,’’ Newman said during cross-examination.

US District Judge Carl Barbier is hearing testimony without a jury and, barring a settlement, could decide how much more money BP and its contractors should pay for their roles in the catastrophe.

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