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Transocean Settlement of Deepwater Horizon Spill and Ethical Responsibility

Transocean Settles with US Government

On January 3, Transocean whose floating Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew out in 2010, causing a massive oil spil in Gulf of Mexico agreed to settle 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 well, known as Macondo, was owned by British oil giant BP, which settled its own criminal charges and some of its 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 still face a civil case, which is scheduled to begin in February in New Orleans. Stephen J. Herman and James P. Roy, lawyers who represent the steering committee of plaintiffs in the cases, said that Thursday’s settlement did not change the case, and that the plaintiffs thought that BP, Transocean and Halliburton “will be found grossly negligent” at trial.

In a deal filed in federal court in New Orleans, a subsidiary, Transocean Deepwater, agreed to one criminal misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act and will pay a fine of $100 million. Over the next five years, the company will pay civil penalties of $1 billion, the largest ever under the act.  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.

As part of the criminal settlement, 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 will be subject to public comment and court approval. The company agreed to five years of monitoring of its drilling practices and improved safety measures.

The company announced in September that it had set an “estimated loss contingency” of $1.5 billion against the Justice Department’s claims.

The multistate trial over claims in the Deepwater Horizon cases that have not been settled are scheduled to begin in February.

BP continued its longstanding argument that the accident, in the words of the spokesman Geoff Morrell, “resulted from multiple causes, involving multiple parties,” and that other companies had to shoulder their share of the blame. This attitude continues BP’s approach of trying to lay off blame to other parties. Whatever happened to the buck stops here?

Looking back at was has happened since the spill, federal inspectors do share much of the blame for not catching safety problems before they got out of hand. on December 2, 2010 the staff of the presidential commission looking into the Horizon Deepwater oil spill issued a report critical of the way federal inspectors handled their role in dealing with what has become the largest oil spill in U.S. history.  While some safety experts investigating the causes of the spill lay blame on human error, it goes much deeper than that and reflects the general malaise in the way federal agencies oversee such activities. As I see it, the causes of the spill can be attributed to the following factors: (1) poorly trained inspectors; (2) lack of resources to adequately oversee and inspect oil rig operations; (3) failure of inspection procedures to keep up with the advanced technology of oil rigging operations; (4) starting salaries for college graduates that pale in comparison to what Engineering school graduates make ($47,448 versus $94,000); (5) a failure of management to devote the resources necessary to prevent oil spills and a cutting corners mentality as was the case with BP; (6) and, perhaps, the most significant cause, the conflict of interests that exists between inspectors and their managers and oil industry executives who develop social ties with the inspectors and pressure them to not look as closely as they should at potential problems.

Looking at the ethics of the matter, I believe the root cause of the BP oil spill was an attitude that has become pervasive in our society that we don’t have to look to closely at oversight because the worst won’t happen. Let’s just go through the motions, document what we have found, and move on to the next assignment. The failure of savings and loan institutions in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the meltdown of financial services companies starting in 2008 can be blamed partly on regulator incompetence or at least, indifference to the possible crises that could arise in the institutions being regulated. In other words it is a failure of work ethic.

Also, it is a lack of ethics in the sense of failing to exercise a reasonable level of care in doing one’s job that contributes to disasters happening such as the Horizon Deep Water Oil Spill. We must get back to pursuing excellence in whatever we do, accepting responsibility for our actions, and being accountable. BP has not learned that lesson as yet. I guess they feel the dozens of commercials they have funded about how clean the coast now is and “come on down” statements from representatives of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi have satisfied its corporate social responsibility and mitigates its horrific response to the Horizon disaster.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 7, 2013