Gulf oil spill could result in criminal charges for BP employees

The Wall Street Journal reports that federal prosecutors are targeting several Houston-based engineers and at least one supervisor employed by British oil giant BP connected to the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer The Christian Science Monitor

posted December 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm EST

Chicago – Federal criminal charges may be pending for key individuals involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that federal prosecutors are targeting several Houston-based engineers and at least one supervisor employed by BP, the British oil giant. BP is one of three parties blamed for the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010 resulting in 11 deaths and the release of 4.9 million barrels of oil (206 million gallons) into the Gulf.

The charges relate to false information given to federal regulators prior to the oil spill involving risks linked to certain drilling procedures. The Department of Justice may bring the charges next year. Convictions could result in fines and up to five years in prison.

BP has long claimed that Halliburton, the BP contractor responsible for the cement job designed to pressurize the well during the drilling process, and Transocean, the rig operator, share responsibility for the accident. The three companies published internal reports detailing the causes of the accident. Other reports were written by a presidential commission as well as independent groups of environmentalists and university scientists studying the spill.

The most comprehensive report, made public in September, was a joint effort of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and the US Coast Guard.

In that report, blame is mostly directed at BP, which is criticized for violating federal regulations for offshore drilling and making a series of decisions that elevated risk. The report details some 35 steps BP made that led to the disaster, suggesting that the blowout of the Macondo well was the result of late-hour company restructuring and concerns about cost overruns.

The suggestion that criminal charges are afoot precedes a civil trial scheduled to start Feb. 27 in New Orleans.

The Department of Justice is suing BP, and eight other parties, in an effort to seek damages under the Clean Water Act and for eight of the defendants, including BP, to admit liability without limitation under the Oil Pollution Act for all damage costs.

The outcome of next year’s trial will determine the extent of the fines BP is facing, likely to range from $4 billion to $20 billion.

Louisiana lawmakers are embarking on an effort to ensure that 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines resulting from the spill benefit coastal restoration for all five Gulf states.

The bill, titled the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast Act of 2011, was debated earlier this month before the US House of Representatives subcommittee on water resources and environment.

Subcommittee chairman Bob Gibbs, (R) of Ohio, criticized the bill, saying the Gulf Coast already received billions of dollars for flood control following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and that it benefits from royalties incurred from offshore drilling.

Louisiana lawmakers, including Rep. Steve Scalise (R), counter that federal dollars were simply used to correct the levee system around New Orleans, the failure of which caused 80 percent of the city to go under water, suggesting that the additional funds were not used to build anything new.

Rep. Scalise added that the Gulf Coast states will not receive royalty money from offshore drilling until 2017. When that happens, Gulf states will collectively share nearly 38 percent, which he said was insufficient compared to the “billions in economic losses across all five Gulf states.”

If criminal charges are brought against employees of BP, it will set off a legal process that separate from next year’s civil trial.

Anthony Sabino, an attorney who specializes in oil and gas law and who teaches at St. John’s University in New York City, says it is not yet certain why federal prosecutors are targeting individuals for criminal wrongdoing when it already is making a separate case against BP and other companies.

He says that unlike a civil trial that targets companies that have “deep pockets,” a criminal trial involving individuals will not help the ultimate goal of levying fines to help coastal restoration.

“If you already have an ongoing investigation and an assessment of liability against BP and you are handling it in a formal, regulatory manner, it begs the question for what purpose are the criminal charges,” Mr. Sabino says.

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