August 11, 2010

Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Being Salvaged For Evidence

Contractors are set to start salvaging the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which could provide key evidence for a criminal investigation.

The U.S. government is leading a criminal investigation into the disaster, but it does not have the technical experience to gather any evidence that might lie 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Transocean, which leased the rig to BP, is expected to lead the salvage operations.

Experts say the salvage process is likely to be swamped in legal battles as BP, Transocean and the other companies involved fight over responsibility for the disaster.

Attorneys for those filing civil claims against BP and Transocean have been working hard in Louisiana courts to try and ensure that the two companies do not destroy evidence while performing the salvage job.

However, they say there is an incentive for all involved to stay honest.

"Ordinarily you might have had concerns about the fox guarding the hen house," Stephen Herman, a New Orleans-based attorney representing hundreds of claimants against BP, told the AFP news agency.

"But BP will be kept honest by Transocean, whose interests run against theirs. So, do we trust BP? No. But we expect that BP will have to work with Transocean under scrutiny from the Coast Guard, and that should lower our suspicions."

Investment firms Anadarko and Mitsui will also have a stake in the salvage after putting up 25 percent and 10 percent of the capital for the deepwater horizon oil rig.

They could be liable for those percentages of any damages awarded in litigation, unless they can prove "gross negligence or willful misconduct" on BP or Transocean's part.

Cameron International and Halliburton are also likely to be involved as they have a legal and financial incentive to prove that responsibility for the disaster lay elsewhere.

"That's why everybody has been pointing the finger at one another. For example, Anadarko has been saying it's gross negligence on the part of BP," Martin Davies, professor of maritime law at Tulane University, told AFP.

"If BP can show gross negligence on behalf of anybody else, then it can shift some of the losses."

The stakes were raised Tuesday as a judicial panel ruled that civil lawsuits related to the Gulf of Mexico spill will be heard in New Orleans and not Big Oil's headquarters of Houston, Texas as requested by BP.

Fines under the Clean Water Act range from $1,100 per barrel spilled to as high as $4,300 per barrel spilled.  This could equate to BP facing fines of up to $17.6 billion for the 4.1 million barrels that spilled into the Gulf.

"I think they may actually have some kind of benevolent purpose in salvaging the evidence from the Gulf floor as well, to ensure that this doesn't happen again," Davies told AFP.

"I'm sure if they find out that there's some simple fix that they could have installed, then they would want to do that again so that they don't have another gazillion dollars worth of liability."


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