Federal judge rules against Transocean in spill subpoena challenge

A federal court on Monday rejected Transocean’s request to dismiss subpoenas for records tied to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The decision by Houston-based U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal also affirmed the Chemical Safety Board’s jurisdiction to investigate the accident, at least temporarily ending a long-running dispute about the independent agency’s power.

At issue were five subpoenas that the CSB issued to Transocean in 2010 and 2011 as the agency sought to learn more about the explosion of the company’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In the case, United States v Transocean Deepwater Drilling, the Justice Department argued on behalf of the CSB’s authority and subpoenas.

Transocean argued that the CSB did not have authority to probe offshore accidents and oil spills, and insisted that most of the requested documents had already been provided to the Interior Department and Coast Guard as part of separate inquiries.

The federal law that created the CSB says it is not “authorized to investigate marine oil spills.” But CSB maintained that it was investigating the root causes of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, 2010 — not the oil spill that came afterward.

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And the CSB argued that the statutory prohibition applies only to investigations of transportation-related spills, while the board’s probe focuses on what happened on the rig itself. The rig was tethered by a riser pipe to the well in the seabed, effectively making it a stationary installation, CSB officials have said.

Rosenthal acknowledged there is legal precedent for treating mobile offshore drilling units as vessels — even when they are connected to the seabed — she ultimately agreed with CSB’s analysis, because Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon rig was 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana when it ignited. That location put the rig outside the U.S. territorial sea and navigable waters, where the National Transportation Safety Board normally is in charge of investigating vessel-related accidents.

“The Macondo incident . . . did not occur on the navigable waters or territorial sea of the United States. Nor did it involve a vessel of the United States,” she said. “The Macondo incident was not transportation-related; the (mobile offshore drilling unit) had been physically attached to the seabed and engaged in drilling activities for an extended period before the blowout.”

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An independent federal agency, the CSB has probed more than 50 industrial accidents, including the lethal Texas City refinery explosion in 2005. Its Deepwater Horizon investigation was launched in June 2010 in response to a request from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

But CSB’s investigation ran into problems from the start, as some potential witnesses refused to testify before the agency. The CSB also tangled with other federal agencies over access to a forensic examination of the blowout preventer exhumed from the Macondo well site.

Rafael Moure-Eraso, the head of the Chemical Safety Board, said in a statement that while “a number of other companies have cooperated with the (agency’s) ongoing investigation, Transocean . . . has not provided the CSB with key information even as the accident approaches its third anniversary.”

Although there have been a host of investigations into the 2010 Gulf oil spill – including a presidential commission’s probe and an inquiry by the National Academy of Sciences — The board’s effort is poised to look closely at the work of federal regulators that oversee offshore drilling.

“The CSB’s investigation includes examining the adequacy of the existing regulatory scheme, including, as described by Transocean, the current division of worker-safety oversight across different federal agencies,” Rosenthal said.

The statutes that authorize the CSB do not “preempt the agency’s investigative authority,” even when the Coast Guard or Interior Department are probing the same accident — as happened with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Rosenthal concluded.

A Transocean spokesman declined to comment on the ruling.

Moure-Eraso said the ruling “greatly supports the CSB’s ongoing investigation and will enable … investigators to access critical information that might have otherwise been unavailable.”

Legislation that would specifically authorize the Chemical Safety Board to investigate the Deepwater Horizon disaster passed the House in 2010 but stalled in the Senate, where it was snagged by other disputes.

Court ruling on US v Transocean