Gulf leak case settled

The U.S. Justice Department announced a $1.4 billion settlement Thursday with Swiss-based Transocean Ltd., which owned the Deepwater Horizon oil rig involved in the 2010 BP oil leak.

The settlement will send $1.1 billion of the Transocean funds to the Gulf Coast for coastal restoration and other efforts.

The Justice Department announced the record $1 billion in Clean Water Act civil penalties will travel through the RESTORE Act legislation signed into law this summer. That law directs 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines to the five Gulf of Mexico states affected by the disaster, an amount that could reach $20 billion once the BP penalties are concluded. Of the remaining $400 million in criminal penalties, $300 million will go toward coastal restoration, environmental and wildlife work and improved oil spill response efforts.

Exactly how much Louisiana will receive is unknown until the funds go through the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council and other federal formulas.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who sponsored the RESTORE Act, credited the legislation with pushing more of the funds to Louisiana and the other affected states.

“While this is an important achievement, I hope it will be one in a series of settlements to bring justice and resolution to our region,” Landrieu stated. “I continue to work to hold BP accountable under every applicable statute for what I believe was gross negligence leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.”

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 men, and resulted in a three-month discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

In agreeing to plead guilty, Transocean admitted that members of its crew on the Deepwater Horizon, acting at the direction of BP’s “well site leaders,” were negligent in failing fully to investigate clear indications that the Macondo well was not secure and that oil and gas were flowing into the well, according to the Justice Department.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has been among those arguing Louisiana potentially could end up with a larger share of funds if more of the penalty dollars go through the federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment process and not only the RESTORE Act equation.

“This seems like an important, positive step forward in getting Gulf restoration well underway through the RESTORE Act and NRDA,” Vitter stated about the Transocean settlement.

“Hopefully this leads soon to much bigger final action with BP, the main culprit in this horrible disaster,” Vitter said in a prepared statement.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, who helped lead the RESTORE Act effort in the House, joined Landrieu though in praising the legislation for funneling the new Transocean dollars.

“The signing of the RESTORE Act into law was without a doubt the single most significant action taken in Louisiana’s history to restore our coast, and it’s vital that settlements like these are quickly reached so we have the resources we need to recover from the spill,” Scalise said in a prepared statement.

“The value of Louisiana’s coast cannot be underestimated, and the DOJ must continue to hold BP fully accountable as it continues negotiating civil penalties,” Scalise said.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, concurred.

“By sending the vast majority of the $1.4 billion in fines to the areas damaged by the oil, we will rebuild and protect one of the most important ecosystems in the country,” Richmond said. “This settlement is extremely important because 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines will be sent directly to the states hardest hit by the oil spill pursuant to the RESTORE Act. This means that tens of millions of dollars for wetlands restoration will be quickly sent to the state of Louisiana.”

In November, BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion in penalties, including a $1.25 billion criminal penalty. But the much-larger BP civil penalties are still pending via another settlement or a federal trial.

BP released a statement Thursday noting that the Transocean settlement shows the “Deepwater Horizon accident resulted from multiple causes, involving multiple parties.”

“In settling, Transocean has acknowledged that it played a significant role and has responsibility for the accident,” the BP statement added. “Transocean is finally starting, more than two-and-a-half years after the accident, to do its part for the Gulf Coast ... Unfortunately, Halliburton continues to deny its significant role in the accident, including its failure to adequately cement and monitor the well.”

Halliburton was the cement contractor on the failed oil-drilling project.

Several environmental groups — the Environmental Defense Fund, Greater New Orleans Inc., National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, Oxfam America and Ocean Conservancy — released a joint statement praising the settlement.

“We thank the Department of Justice for its leadership in holding Transocean accountable and look forward to full resolution of the case with other responsible parties, which will allow restoration efforts in the Gulf to get fully underway,” the organizations said.

The Transocean settlement still requires a federal judge’s approval.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Carl J. Barbier, of New Orleans, gave final approval to a class-action settlement agreement between BP and a team of private plaintiffs’ attorneys. BP estimates it will pay about $7.8 billion to resolve these claims, but the settlement is not capped.

Barbier also is set to preside over a trial designed to identify the causes of BP’s deadly well blowout and assign percentages of fault to the companies involved. The first phase of the trial is scheduled to start Feb. 25.