BP to pay record fine, workers indicted

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the BP deal the 'largest total criminal resolution in the history of the United States.'

HOUSTON/WASHINGTON -  Two men who worked for BP during the 2010 Gulf oil spill disaster have been charged with manslaughter and a third with lying to federal investigators, according to indictments made public Thursday, hours after BP announced it was paying $4.5 billion in a settlement with the U.S. government over the disaster, the Associated Press reported.

A federal indictment unsealed in New Orleans claims BP well site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine acted negligently in their supervision of key safety tests performed on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig before the explosion killed 11 workers in April 2010. The indictment says Kaluza and Vidrine failed to phone engineers onshore to alert them of problems in the drilling operation, the AP reported.

Another indictment charges David Rainey, who was BP's vice president of exploration for the Gulf of Mexico, on charges of obstruction of Congress and false statements. The indictment claims the former executive lied to federal investigators when they asked him how he calculated a flow rate estimate for BP's blown-out well in the days after the April 2010 disaster.

Before Thursday, the only person charged in the disaster was a former BP engineer who was arrested in April on obstruction of justice charges. He was accused of deleting text messages about the company's response to the spill.

Earlier in the day, BP PLC said it would plead guilty to criminal charges related to the deaths of 11 workers and lying to Congress.

"We believe this resolution is in the best interest of BP and its shareholders," said Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP chairman. "It removes two significant legal risks and allows us to vigorously defend the company against the remaining civil claims."

BP also said it will pay $4.5 billion in penalties on top of the tens of billions it is already paying out and plead guilty to felony misconduct in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which caused the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, Reuters reported.

BP said it would plead guilty to 11 felony counts of misconduct or neglect relating to the death of 11 workers, one misdemeanor count under the Clean Water Act, one misdemeanor count under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and one felony count of obstruction of Congress, the Associated Press reported.

The settlement includes a $1.256 billion criminal fine, the largest such levy in U.S. history, the company said on Thursday. Analysts said the deal let BP put its focus back on oil production, though at least one member of Congress questioned whether it would hurt states' chances for civil penalties, according to Reuters.

The discussions do not cover federal civil claims, both BP and the sources said.

London-based oil giant BP has been locked in a months-long negotiations with the U.S. government and Gulf Coast states to settle billions of dollars of potential civil and criminal liability claims resulting from the April 20, 2010, explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig.

The deal could resolve a significant share of the liability that BP faces after the explosion killed 11 workers and fouled the shorelines of four Gulf Coast states in the worst offshore spill in U.S. history. BP, which saw its market value plummet and replaced its CEO in the aftermath of the spill, still faces economic and environmental damage claims sought by U.S. Gulf Coast states and other private plaintiffs.

The fine would far outstrip BP's last major settlement with the Department of Justice in 2007, when it payed about $373 million to resolve three separate probes into a deadly 2005 Texas refinery explosion, an Alaska oil pipeline leak and fraud for conspiring to corner the U.S. propane market.

The massive settlement, which comes a week after the U.S. presidential election, could ignite a debate in Congress about how funds would be shared with Gulf Coast states, depending on how the deal is structured. Congress passed a law last year that would earmark 80 percent of BP penalties paid under the Clean Water Act to the spill-hit states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas.

POTENTIAL LIABILITY

In an August filing, the DoJ said "reckless management" of the Macondo well "constituted gross negligence and willful misconduct" which it intended to prove at a civil trial set to begin in New Orleans in February 2013. The U.S. government has not yet filed any criminal charges in the case.

Given that the deal will not resolve any civil charges brought by the Justice Department, it is also unclear how large a financial penalty BP might pay to resolve the charges, or other punishments that BP might face.

Negligence is a central issue to BP's potential liability. A gross negligence finding could nearly quadruple the civil damages owed by BP under the Clean Water Act to $21 billion in a straight-line calculation.

Still unresolved is potential liability faced by Swiss-based Transocean Ltd, owner of the Deepwater Horizon vessel, and Halliburton Co, which provided cementing work on the well that U.S. investigators say was flawed. Both companies were not immediately available for comment.

According to the Justice Department, errors made by BP and Transocean in deciphering a pressure test of the Macondo well are a clear indication of gross negligence.

"That such a simple, yet fundamental and safety-critical test could have been so stunningly, blindingly botched in so many ways, by so many people, demonstrates gross negligence," the government said in its August filing.

Transocean in September disclosed it is in discussions with the Justice Department to pay $1.5 billion to resolve civil and criminal claims.

The mile-deep Macondo well spewed 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of 87 days. The torrent fouled shorelines from Texas to Florida and eclipsed in severity the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

BP has already announced an uncapped class-action settlement with private plaintiffs that the company estimates will cost $7.8 billion to resolve litigation brought by over 100,000 individuals and businesses claiming economic and medical damages from the spill.

 

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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