The companies involved in the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history are trying to prevent government investigations blaming them for the disaster from being used against them by the people and businesses who are suing them.
Billions of dollars are potentially at stake in a trial scheduled for February to determine whether rig owner Transocean can limit what it pays those making claims under maritime law and to assign percentages of fault to Transocean and other companies involved.
BP, Transocean and cement contractor Halliburton filed motions late Monday in federal court in New Orleans seeking to keep certain government oil spill reports out of the civil case. BP also wants a judge to bar plaintiffs' lawyers from using past criminal, civil and regulatory proceedings against the British firm in the civil case. The companies cited rules of evidence and other procedural issues.
The filings deal with the two most comprehensive federal investigations of the disaster. One that was issued in September by the U.S. Coast Guard and the agency that regulates offshore drilling concluded that BP bears ultimate responsibility for the disaster. The other report by the presidential oil spill commission blamed the blowout on a series of failures involving all the players.
There was no immediate ruling.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard approved a plan to end the cleanup along the Gulf Coast, a move that officials said opens a new phase of work for BP: restoring damage areas.
According to a document obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday, the plan "provides the mechanisms for ceasing active clean-up operations." In it, the Coast Guard spells out protocol for ending the cleanup. It has been going on since April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon exploded off the Louisiana coast.
About the lawsuit request, U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, scolded the companies. He noted that the CEOs of the three companies recently refused to appear before his committee to testify about the findings in the Coast Guard-Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement report.
"Whether it's Congress or courtrooms, these companies are trying to whitewash away this dark period in our nation's environmental history. It's not enough for BP, Halliburton and Transocean to avoid talking to Congress about these oil spill reports, they don't want anyone in the courts talking about them either," Markey said in a statement Tuesday.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana in April 2010 killed 11 rig workers and led to more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing from a well a mile beneath the sea. The well was capped three months later, but not before hundreds of miles of coastline were stained, seafood and tourism businesses were devastated, and a fragile ecosystem was damaged.
BP PLC, which owned the well and was leasing the rig from Transocean Ltd., has already spent or committed tens of billions of dollars to clean up the oil and compensate victims. It is at risk of having to pay out billions more depending on the outcome of the civil trial involving hundreds of lawsuits. Government fines and penalties also could add significant liability.