Criminal charges being considered against BP in Gulf oil rig tragedy


Several investigations of the Deepwater Horizon disaster will seek to determine if systemic issues or individual error caused the catastrophe.

The Justice Department is considering criminal charges and civil penalties. If gross negligence is found, fines for the nearly 5 million barrels of oil spilled would balloon from a ceiling of around $5 billion to as much as $18 billion. BP could be found criminally liable as a corporation, and individual employees, three of whom have already invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, could also be prosecuted.

While human error obviously played an important part in the April 20 blowout of BP’s Macondo well, there are other, larger questions that could affect the future of the offshore energy sector. Would tighter federal regulations or better enforcement have prevented it? Was BP a rogue operator, or were the mistakes made in the Macondo disaster typical of practices throughout the industry?

BP officials, one after another, have insisted that they put safety first. Indeed, BP and Transocean spent millions of dollars on safety equipment and training. The workers practiced man-overboard and abandon-ship drills every week.

But Coast Guard Capt. Hung Nguyen, co-chairman of the Marine Board investigation panel that has been taking public testimony from rig workers and managers since May 11, said he was disturbed by the more human side of BP’s “safety culture.” He pointed out that in four separate incidents — two different shallow-water well accidents in 2002; the near capsizing of the company’s Thunder Horse platform in 2005; and the fatal explosions at the company’s Texas City refinery that year — the London-based oil giant made procedural changes, but never addressed what led its employees to make the mistakes in the first place.

Nguyen and fellow panel member Jason Mathews focused on changes in BP’s management just before the accident. Five of the 11 BP officials in positions of authority over the Deepwater Horizon had been in their jobs less than six months. The ones who were willing to testify claimed they didn’t make decisions alone, but rather in a collaborative effort — between BP and its contractors, between the rig officers and the engineers in Houston.

BP’s most respected presence on the rig, veteran company man Ronnie Sepulvado, was directed to leave the troubled well four days before it was completed so he could attend a well-control training class. That gave his replacement, Robert Kaluza, four days to learn the rig before it exploded.

“It seems like everybody’s in charge and at end of the day nobody’s in charge and nobody wants to step up to make a decision here,” Nguyen said at hearings last month. “That’s what I’m seeing.”

Safety management is a long-standing problem at BP. Bob Bea, a University of California at Berkeley professor and former offshore drilling engineer who led an independent investigation of the accident for the White House, said he was hired in 2002 by then-BP chief executive John Browne because the company was concerned about what had happened to its American operations.

Browne, now president of the British Royal Academy of Engineering, declined to comment for this story through a spokesman. But Bea said Browne told him that mergers with Texas-based AMOCO and Arco had created a clash of cultures and led to downsizing, a loss of core competencies and too much outsourcing. Bea said he made recommendations, and in 2008, BP presented its risk assessment and safety management practices at a conference in France.

“They had stage actors show how they’re telling employees to do their jobs,” Bea said. “They turned into an entertaining play something that was deadly serious. That’s when I realized their early attempts to forestall this sort of thing didn’t take hold, and I look upon it as a personal failure.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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