Transocean to be arraigned on criminal charge in Gulf disaster

Transocean is preparing for arraignment before a federal judge in New Orleans on a misdemeanor criminal charge stemming from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Wednesday’s hearing is expected to be brief.

Generally, a defendant is advised of the charge and potential penalties and asked to enter a plea. A company spokesman said that in a strictly procedural move, a lawyer for Transocean will enter a not guilty plea on the company’s behalf at the hearing.

While the Swiss drilling contractor has agreed to plead guilty and pay $1.4 billion in criminal and civil fines in a deal with the U.S. government,  that won’t be entered until next month.

U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo has already scheduled Feb. 14 as the day for Transocean to enter its guilty plea. She will either accept or reject the deal at that time. If she rejects it, Transocean can withdraw its guilty plea and go to trial.

The judge has asked Transocean and lawyers for the Justice Department to file a joint memorandum by Feb. 8 explaining why they believe the plea agreement and punishment are appropriate.

A presentence investigation will be completed by federal probation officials. The court will consider that review and then the judge will make her decision.

Transocean would resolve most of its liability from the federal government if the consent decree and the company’s planned guilty plea to a charge of violating the Clean Water Act are approved.

Under its plea deal, Transocean will admit that members of its crew, acting at the direction of BP’s well-site leaders on the Deepwater Horizon rig, were negligent in failing fully to investigate clear indications that BP’s Macondo well was not secure and that oil and gas were flowing into the well.

Transocean owned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that was working on BP’s Macondo well when the well blew out, leading to an explosion that destroyed the rig and killed 11 workers, and triggering the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

British oil giant BP, meanwhile, is scheduled to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges, including manslaughter, on Jan. 29. It has agreed to pay a $4 billion criminal penalty in addition to a $525 million fine for securities violations. Relatives of some of the rig workers who were killed oppose BP’s criminal settlement.