Transocean, the driller whose floating Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew out in 2010 to cause the nation’s biggest oil spill, has agreed to settle all civil and criminal claims with the federal government for $1.4 billion.
The Deepwater Horizon exploded, burned and sank in April 2010. Eleven men were killed and millions of gallons of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and fouled the shores of coastal states. The Macondo well was owned by British oil company BP, which settled its own criminal charges and some civil charges in November for $4.5 billion.
While this settlement resolves the government’s claims against Transocean, that company and the others involved in the spill face a sprawling, multistate civil case, scheduled to begin in February in New Orleans.
In a deal filed in federal court in New Orleans, Transocean Deepwater agreed to one criminal misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act and will pay a fine of $100 million. During the next five years, the company will pay record civil penalties of $1 billion under the act.
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Transocean also agreed to pay the National Academy of Sciences and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation $150 million each. Those funds will be applied to oil-spill prevention and response in the Gulf of Mexico and natural-resource restoration projects.
The agreement is subject to public comment and court approval. The company agreed to five years of monitoring of its drilling practices and improved safety measures.
In a statement, Transocean, the Switzerland-based parent of the rig owner, said the company thought these were “important agreements” and called them a “positive step forward” that were “in the best interest of its shareholders and employees.” Of the 11 men killed on the rig, the company said, “their families continue to be in the thoughts and prayers of all of us at Transocean.”
In a statement, Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, seemed to suggest Transocean played a subservient and lesser role in the disaster to that of BP.
“Transocean’s rig crew accepted the direction of BP well-site leaders to proceed in the face of clear danger signs — at a tragic cost to many of them,” he said. Breuer added that the $1.4 billion “appropriately reflects its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.”
Under a law passed last year, 80 percent of the penalty will be applied to projects for restoring the environment and economies of Gulf states.
The penalty struck some experts in environmental law as somewhat light. David Uhlmann, who headed the Justice Department’s environmental-crimes section from 2000 to 2007, praised the size of the civil settlement, which he said “reflects the scope of the Gulf oil spill tragedy.”
He argued, however, that the criminal penalty should have been at least as onerous, “given Transocean’s numerous failures to drill in a safe manner, which cost 11 workers their lives and billions of dollars in damages to communities along the Gulf.” The settlement, he said, should have included seaman’s manslaughter charges, which were part of the BP settlement.
As for the company’s role in following the lead of BP, he said, “following orders is not a defense to criminal charges.”