US, Transocean urge judge to approve Gulf criminal plea deal

Transocean and federal prosecutors are urging a U.S. judge to accept a criminal plea agreement under which the Swiss drilling contractor would admit to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Clean Water Act and pay a $400 million penalty for its role in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

A 21-page joint memo filed Friday by federal prosecutors and Transocean asserts that the plea and punishment are fair.

“The plea agreement appropriately reflects the nature of the offense charged, the defendant’s role in the conduct at issue, the environmental impact of the Macondo well blowout, and Transocean’s past and ongoing cooperation in the government’s investigation,” the filing says.

British oil giant BP owned the undersea Macondo well that blew out, leading to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. It was leasing from Transocean the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded, killing 11 workers, including nine Transocean employees.

Transocean is scheduled to plead guilty Feb. 14 in federal court in New Orleans. If U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo accepts the plea agreement, she will impose the negotiated sentence. If she rejects it, she will allow Transocean to withdraw its guilty plea and proceed to trial.

A survivor of the rig explosion, a Gulf Coast property owner and the coordinator of a group that represents members of the Southeast Asian community who work in the Gulf of Mexico have advised the court they would like to speak at the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Cohen said in a separate court filing Friday.

Accepting Transocean’s plea deal would result in the second criminal conviction so far stemming from the disaster. BP pleaded guilty Jan. 29 to 14 criminal charges, including manslaughter, and was ordered to pay a $4 billion criminal penalty. Like BP, Transocean would be on probation for five years if its plea deal is approved.

Read more: Guilty: BP admits to causing deaths in spill disaster

A $1 billion civil penalty that Transocean has agreed to pay to resolve most civil claims by the U.S. government is currently before another judge. Earlier this week, the Justice Department urged the court to approve that deal, as well.

Friday’s joint memo says both agreements “serve to deter and prevent future misconduct and protect the public from future criminal conduct by Transocean and others.”

“The size and scope of the criminal penalty imposed on Transocean fairly and reasonably balances the seriousness of the spill and its consequences with an assessment of Transocean’s role in the offense,” the memo says.

It adds, “Transocean’s crew, though negligent, carried out drilling operations in general, and the negative test in particular, under BP’s instruction and supervision.”

A procedure called a negative pressure test was conducted on board the Deepwater Horizon prior to the well blow out. The failure to correctly interpret the test has been a key finding in several government investigations of the disaster.

The purpose of the negative pressure test was to lower the pressure inside the well in a controlled manner to ensure that the casing and cement that separate the well from the oil and gas formation could hold without any leaks.

A civil trial over the oil spill is set to begin Feb. 25 in New Orleans.

Friday’s memo also offers an apology from Transocean.

“Transocean deeply regrets the incalculable consequences of the blowout, including the loss of life and injury, the suffering of families and friends and colleagues, and the devastating impact of the ensuing spill on the Gulf Coast region,” the memo says. “Transocean has demonstrated its acceptance of responsibility by studying the event carefully for lessons learned, by cooperating with the United States’ investigation, and by entering into the plea agreement and the simultaneous civil consent decree.”

Transocean says it has paid over $140 million in salary continuation, maintenance benefits, medical benefits and settlements since the disaster, and continues to work to resolve remaining claims. By comparison, BP’s tab so far is over $24 billion, excluding the criminal penalty recently imposed against the company.

Transocean criminal plea agreement memo