(BP oil spill lawsuit story updated and corrected for fact that Lloyd's of London is not defendent)
NEW YORK (
) -- The Justice Department has launched what's expected to be a multi-year legal battle over the
oil spill, filing a case with the federal district court in New Orleans on Wednesday.
The companies names in the Obama administration suit include BP, Macondo well minority owner
, Deepwater Horizon rig operator
, and Japanese company
, and its affiliate MOEX, which owned a small stake in the well.
The Justice Department lawsuit is pursuing damages against all of the oil spill companies and asks the court to waive the Oil Pollution Act liability cap of $75 million.
Lloyd's of London, which had been originally reported as among the companies named in the suit, is not a defendent, as BP self-insures all of its assets. Transocean's insurer, QBE Underwriting Ltd./Lloyd's Syndicate 1036, was named as a defendant in the suit, though it is not subject a waiver of the oil spill liability cap. Lloyd's is a marketplace and individual syndicates write the insurance in the market.
All the oil spill stocks declined after the lawsuit was filed on Wednesday -- although the energy sector as a whole was down by more than 1% also.
BP and Transocean shares closed no lower than the energy sector decline of 1% on Wednesday, while Anadarko shares fell by a little more than 2%.
All of the oil spill companies have been on the comeback trail since the well was capped in July, and as the markets, and the price of crude oil, have rallied. BP and the other companies involved in the oil spill have gained between 40% and 50% in share price since the oil spill low water marks in market value.
The liability cap waiver request is likely more of an issue for Anadarko, Transocean and other companies named in the suit, as opposed to an issue for BP. BP stated earlier in the oil spill crisis that it would voluntarily agree to waive the $75 million cap. BP took a $32 billion charge against its second quarter earnings to cover oil spill liabilities.
Meanwhile, Anadarko has maintained all along that BP was grossly negligent in the oil spill, providing them with cover from any liabilities.
The Obama administration oil spill lawsuit excludes insurer Lloyd's from the group of companies that would be subject to an unlimited liability.
While the filing of the lawsuit and the request for the liability cap waiver is a headline event, an environmental lawyer with whom
spoke said the Justice Department suit shouldn't be a surprise to anyone following the oil spill.
"It's a step that has to be taken," said Nathan Richardson, a resident scholar at environmental resource and economics non-profit
Resources for the Future (RFF)
. "The government spent lots of money cleaning up the spill and the law gives them the ability to recover the money and they need to do it formally," the environmental lawyer said, noting that BP had already agreed to not use the liability cap as a legal shield.
"This is just an initial filing and, I think, a formality that happens to be a public event. It will be a long process," RFF's Richardson said.
While Anadarko and Transocean have pointed the accusatory finger at BP all along, it's not a surprise that the government would pursue charges against multiple companies. Street analysts have maintained all along that Anadarko would ultimately have to pay some share of oil spill liabilities as 25% owner of the Macondo well.
The Justice Department request for a waiver of the liability cap can be made on two grounds: gross negligence of one or multiple parties in the oil spill, and/or proof of a regulatory violation on the rig that was linked to the oil spill. The government does not need to prove gross negligence, but only a regulatory violation, for the cap to be waived, RFF's Richardson said. "We've certainly seen enough to indicate that a regulatory violation claim or gross negligence claim is plausible, and it doesn't have to be BP that's alone negligent," the environmental lawyer said.
In the complaint, the Obama administration alleges violations of federal safety and operational regulations, including:
Failure to take necessary precautions to secure the Macondo Well prior to the April 20th explosion;
Failure to utilize the safest drilling technology to monitor the well's condition;
Failure to maintain continuous surveillance of the well; and
Failure to utilize and maintain equipment and materials that were available and necessary to ensure the safety and protection of personnel, property, natural resources, and the environment.
The Justice Department said in announcing the suit, "We intend to prove that these violations caused or contributed to this massive oil spill, and that the defendants are therefore responsible - under the Oil Pollution Act - for government removal costs, economic losses, and environmental damages."
While BP has said it won't defend itself against the liability cap being waived, the Justice Department suit could be the beginning of the tangential legal battle between BP and its partners on the well over ultimate divvying up of the oil spill price tag.
Phil Weiss, analyst at Argus Research, said it was notable that
was not among the companies named in the suit, though it might be a matter of Oil Pollution Act law, or Halliburton could still be added to the civil suit at a later date based on the Justice Department's continuing investigation.
Even more notable, though, in terms of the market reaction to the headline event, was that Halliburton's decline on Wednesday afternoon was larger than the decline in any of the companies named in the oil spill suit. Clearly, the market was expecting the legal battle and it wasn't moving the oil spill stocks much.
The Argus research analyst said, "I expected Anadarko to have to pay something and still expect it. I don't think this necessarily puts any more pressure on them to settle now." The analyst said his recollection of the contract between Anadarko and BP was for any dispute to be sent to binding arbitration.
Street analysts who believe Anadarko, for example, will ultimately have to pay some amount of oil spill damages, expect that as the legal situation plays out, BP and Anadarko might settle in a private transaction, somewhere between 0% and the 25% working interest that Anadarko had in the Macondo well.
The analyst also noted that Transocean management had previously indicated that as rig operator it might be liable for some damages resulting from oil spilled from the rig itself. Transocean had also filed a legal claim much earlier in the oil spill crisis to cap its liability and using a maritime law dating back over 150 years as the relevant statute.
In a notable change from the previous landmark oil spill case, the Exxon Valdez, the Justice Department suit against BP et al. is a civil suit. The government charged Exxon with a criminal complaint after the Valdez, before ultimately reaching a settlement. Nevertheless, the RFF environmental lawyer said Wednesday's action doesn't preclude the government from also pursuing criminal charges in response to the oil spill at a later date.
-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.
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