Guilty: Transocean convicted in Gulf of Mexico oil spill

NEW ORLEANS — The owner of the deep-water rig that exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico nearly three years ago after an undersea well blew out is now the second company to be convicted of a crime stemming from the deadly disaster.

A lawyer for Swiss drilling contractor Transocean, Brad Brian, stood before U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo in federal court in New Orleans and entered a guilty plea Thursday on the company’s behalf to a misdemeanor charge of violating the Clean Water Act.

“Does the company wish to plead guilty because it is guilty,” Milazzo asked Brian.

“Yes, your honor,” Brian responded.

Three victims or representatives of victims of the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history were scheduled to speak at the hearing, but none showed up. No Transocean executives spoke at the hearing, and Brian said the company had nothing to add beyond what it has said in court papers.

Milazzo took a brief recess and then returned to the courtroom and approved the criminal settlement that Transocean reached with the Justice Department.

She quickly imposed the negotiated sentence, which includes a $400 million penalty and five years of probation. Transocean also agreed to pay a $1 billion civil penalty, and that deal is pending before another judge.

“I believe the plea agreement is reasonable and accepted,” Milazzo said.

Milazzo noted that she didn’t receive any written objections to the Transocean plea agreement.

“People had advised that they would appear today and they did not,” the judge said.

Unlike British oil giant BP, which owned the well and employed the supervisors overseeing well operations on the rig at the time of the April 20, 2010 explosion, Transocean did not face charges in connection with the deaths of the 11 workers who were killed. Instead, Transocean was charged with negligently discharging oil into the Gulf.

Nine of the employees who died worked for Transocean. The other two worked for an affiliate of oil field services firm Schlumberger.

Two weeks ago, BP pleaded guilty to 14 criminal charges, including manslaughter, and was ordered to pay a $4 billion fine and serve five years on probation, terms it negotiated with the Justice Department. It separately agreed to pay $525 million to resolve related securities violations.

Federal prosecutors say Transocean’s crew was negligent, but was carrying out drilling operations and a negative pressure test conducted on the rig under BP’s instruction and supervision.

The judge took those assertions into consideration in her decision.

The failure to correctly interpret the test has been a key finding in several government investigations of the disaster.

A negative pressure test involves controlled reduction of pressure in a well to ensure that the casing and cement that separate the well from the oil and gas formation  hold without any leaks.

Milazzo said, “BP had the ultimate authority to determine if the negative pressure test was successful and if” the temporary abandonment of the well “should proceed.”

The judge also insisted that for the government to get a higher fine or better outcome if the plea were rejected and the case were to go to trial would be “no small feat.”

Two BP well-site leaders face manslaughter charges stemming from the negative pressure test. A former BP executive and a former BP engineer face charges related to actions after the disaster. All four are preparing for trial.

A civil trial over the oil spill, meanwhile, is set to begin Feb. 25 before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in a courtroom across the hall from Milazzo’s courtroom.