World and Nation

US to seek fines on oil firms for Gulf spill

WASHINGTON — The federal government will seek to fine BP, Transocean and Halliburton for violations tied to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the nation’s top offshore drilling regulator said Thursday.

The process will begin as soon as next week when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement accuses the companies of violating seven offshore drilling regulations in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The ocean energy bureau is “developing the proposed notices of violations,” which could be issued “as early as next week,” said Michael Bromwich, the agency’s director.

The notices kick off a procedure for imposing civil fines against each of the three firms, up to a maximum penalty of $35,000 per day, per incident.

In the case of the oil spill, violations may have covered 87 days — the time crude was gushing into the Gulf — or longer, creating a potential tab per incident of $3.05 million. Collectively, the bill for all seven companies could be as high as $39.59 million, based on 87 days of infractions.

The ocean energy bureau’s sanctions are separate from any fines or other penalties that are expected to be imposed under the Clean Water Act, which could reach to $21 billion for BP, based on estimates that its Macondo well gushed 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Under the Clean Water Act, BP can be ordered to pay at least $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil and up to $4,300 per barrel if the company is deemed grossly negligent.

A joint investigation by the Coast Guard and the ocean energy bureau concluded Wednesday that the three firms responsible for much of the work at the Macondo well had collectively run afoul of seven offshore regulations, such as failing “to take necessary precautions to keep the well under control at all times.”

Individually, BP was found to have violated seven regulations; Transocean, three; and Halliburton, (via its subsidiary Sperry Sun) three.

For instance, the panel concluded that all three companies broke requirements for preventing conditions posing “unreasonable risk to public health, life, property, aquatic life . . . or other uses of the ocean.”

Additionally, BP and Transocean were flagged for defying a mandate for inspections of blowout preventers that are a final safeguard against surging oil and gas.

BP said it would not comment on the penalties; Transocean and Halliburton did not respond to requests for reaction.

The Obama administration boosted the maximum fees for violating the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act from $35,000 to $40,000 per violation, per day in June, to keep up with inflation.

But that was as far as the ocean energy bureau could go administratively. Although federal law empowers the government to make the inflation adjustment at least once every three years, bigger changes are largely up to Congress.