Three firms appeal citations alleging Gulf spill safety violations

As expected, the three companies cited by the Department of the Interior for offshore safety violations in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have appealed the notices, an Interior agency said Friday.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said that BP, which majority-owned the ill-fated Macondo well; Halliburton, the cement contractor on the project; and Transocean, which owned the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, appealed all the citations they’ve received to the Interior Board of Land Appeals. 

The citations, called “incidents of noncompliance,” are the first step in bringing civil penalties against the companies, which some government reports have said share the blame in the April 20, 2010, disaster that killed 11 workers and spilled an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In October, the environmental enforcement bureau accused BP of violating seven regulations governing work on the outer continental shelf. Transocean and Halliburton were hit with four alleged violations each. The alleged infractions range from failing to keep the well under control to pollution and unsafe operations at the site.

The agency hit BP with five more citations in December, alleging among other things that the British oil giant failed to conduct required pressure tests and to suspend drilling operations at the Macondo when work slipped outside the safe drilling margin that had been identified in the company’s government-approved permit to drill.

The drilling margin represents the difference between the pressure exerted by oil and gas in the underground formation and the countervailing weight and pressure of drilling fluids at the site. If the downhole drilling mud pressure exceeds the forces exerted by the formation itself, it can cause cracks to develop. 

Each violation carries a penalty of up to $35,000 per day per incident. Since oil gushed into the Gulf for 87 days, the maximum potential penalty per incident is almost $3.05 million. 

BP said in December that it would appeal all 12 citations.

“Drilling margins and related integrity testing played no causal role in the accident,” Scott Dean, a BP spokesman, said in a statement then.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, blasted the appeals as “appalling,” saying multiple reports have shown the “neglect, shortcuts and mistakes that led to this disaster.”

“The three companies should accept these violations as an already small punishment for the huge harm they inflicted on the people of the Gulf,” he said in a statement.

The environmental enforcement bureau said proceedings on the appeals won’t start until after a federal court case involving the companies, scheduled to start Feb. 27, moves beyond its first phase, which will examine the causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the well blowout and the roles the companies played.

Resulting penalties from the citations would be separate from any others that are assessed under the Clean Water Act.