Judge: Victims of Gulf disaster can weigh in on BP plea deal

A federal judge is giving victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a chance to weigh in on whether the court should accept an agreement between BP and the U.S. government under which the British oil giant would plead guilty to manslaughter and other criminal charges and pay a multibillion dollar fine.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance wrote in an order in federal court in New Orleans filed late Tuesday that victims will have until Jan. 16 to submit written statements about the plea agreement. Vance said she will hold a hearing Jan. 29 to accept or reject the agreement. She indicated victims could be heard at the hearing if they notified the court in advance.

In the meantime, Vance has ordered a pre-sentence investigation in which probation officials will assess the appropriate punishment on charges related to the deaths of 11 rig workers and the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Vance wants BP and the government to file papers explaining why they believe the plea agreement “adequately reflects the seriousness of the offenses and accepting the agreement satisfies the statutory purposes of sentencing.”

If the judge rejects the plea agreement, BP can withdraw its plea and go to trial. If she accepts it, she will impose the agreed sentence at the late January hearing.

BP has agreed to plead guilty to 13 criminal charges, including manslaughter and obstruction of Congress. It also has agreed to pay a $4.5 billion fine, which would resolve the criminal charges as well as related Securities and Exchange Commission violations.

Four current and former BP workers also face criminal charges stemming from the Gulf disaster.

Late Tuesday, lawyers for BP well-site leaders Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza asked a judge to delay their February trial on manslaughter charges because they need at least another year to prepare. Former executive David Rainey, who is charged with obstruction of Congress, already has been granted a trial delay.

Also facing charges is former engineer Kurt Mix, who is accused of deleting text messages about the amount of oil flowing from BP’s well after it blew out.