Commentary: The Legal Challenges and Ramifications of the Gulf Oil Spill

October 13, 2010  |  Environmental, Gulf Oil Spill, Press Releases

By Scott Summy, Esq.

Scott Summy is a shareholder and head of the water contamination litigation group at Baron & Budd, P.C. The law firm represents a number of clients with oil-spill claims, including the State of Louisiana.
Fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana, on Apr. 20, 2010, the blowout of a BP well below Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform triggered the largest and most destructive oil spill in U.S. history. In a speech on June 1, President Barack Obama called the spill in the Gulf of Mexico the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our nation’s history.

Over more than three months, approximately 4.9 billion barrels — or about 210 billion gallons — of oil have surged into the Gulf of Mexico. The impact of the spill has been horrific. Oil has penetrated deep into the Louisiana marshes, devastating environmentally sensitive and important wetland areas, and the slick has spread its tentacles into the shorelines of four states, reaching as far as the beaches of the Florida Panhandle. Even though it appears that the flow of the well has been stopped, it remains unclear what the full impact of the spill will be on wildlife, coastal communities, and the economies of the Gulf Coast states. Indeed, the full impact may not be known for years to come.

Many questions remain unanswered about the cause of the blowout beneath the Deepwater Horizon platform. But what is increasingly becoming clear through congressional hearings, a criminal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice, and a Coast Guard–Interior Department investigative panel is this: a combination of safety lapses, mechanical failures, cost- and corner-cutting practices, deadline pressures and a culture of discouraging worker safety complaints contributed to the disaster.

It is known that the crew of the rig owner, Transocean, damaged the blowout preventer by moving the drilling pipe while the gasket used to seal off the well was closed, making critical pressure tests unreliable. This and a number of other mechanical problems with the BOP — lost function of a control pod, a hydraulic leak, and a weak battery — seriously compromised the critical safety device.

It is also known that BP pressured the Transocean crew to speed up completion of the project. Indeed, one BP representative who was responsible for critical decisions shortly before the accident has invoked his right against self-incrimination. When the well was to be plugged, BP ordered time-saving shortcuts that risked pressure increases in the pipe. Then, a pressure test by the compromised BOP erroneously indicated that the pressure level was fine. To complete the catastrophe, contractor Halliburton’s concrete plugs, intended to close off the well, failed entirely.

Rig workers have since revealed that not only were there a number of safety lapses aboard the rig, but the culture on the rig discouraged them from speaking up about safety concerns. Indeed, a September 2009 audit revealed hundreds of uncompleted “high-priority” repairs aboard the rig, although it is not known to what extent those repairs remained unresolved by the date of the explosion. Although much remains to be discovered about the cause and response to the blowout, fault seems to be in no short supply.

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