Transocean advised of rights at hearing on Gulf spill criminal charge

Swiss drilling contractor Transocean made a brief appearance Wednesday in New Orleans federal court, where a lawyer for the company was advised of the misdemeanor criminal charge the company faces in connection with the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Attorney Brad Brian was not asked to enter a plea on the company’s behalf at the hearing, Transocean spokesman Jared Allen said. The hearing had previously been set by court order as an arraignment.

Instead, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan explained Transocean’s rights and discussed future court dates.

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, triggering the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

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

Transocean has agreed to plead guilty to a charge of violating the Clean Water Act and pay a $400 million criminal penalty. It also has agreed to pay a $1 billion civil penalty. The civil settlement is before a different judge.

Transocean would resolve most of its liability from the federal government if the consent decree and the company’s planned guilty plea 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.

Milazzo 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.

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.

A presentence investigation has already been completed in BP’s case and filed under seal by probation officials.

BP still faces the potential of having to pay billions of dollars in civil fines over the amount of oil that spilled. A civil trial is currently scheduled to begin Feb. 25 in New Orleans.

BP has argued the U.S. government overstated the amount of oil that was discharged by BP’s well, though the company has never publicly stated a figure of its own.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu is scheduled to be deposed by lawyers for BP and other interested parties in the civil case on Jan. 24 in Washington. In a ruling Wednesday, Shushan said the closed-door testimony will be videotaped. The judge also ordered that Transocean lawyers will continue to be able to question Chu for the length of time they expected. She denied a BP request to increase its time to question Chu and reduce Transocean’s.