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Media Alerts - United States v. BP Exploration & Production, Inc. - Fifth Circuit
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June 4, 2014
  United States v. BP Exploration & Production, Inc. - Fifth Circuit
Headline: Fifth Circuit Affirms Liability for Civil Penalties in Deepwater Horizon Spill.

Area of Law: Clean Water Act.

Issue Presented: Whether the owners of the failed well involved in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are responsible for civil penalties under the Clean Water Act for "discharg[ing]" pollutants where the pollutants first travelled through another party's structure before entering the environment.

Brief Summary: The United States sought civil penalties under the Clean Water Act against Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and BP Exploration & Production, Inc., the owners of the failed well involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The well owners disputed liability on the ground that the oil did not enter the environment directly from the well but rather flowed first through a structure owned by another party, Transocean. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana entered summary judgment in the government's favor on the issue of liability for discharging pollutants. The U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the well owners' arguments and therefore affirmed.

Extended Summary: Anadarko Petroleum and BP owned the Macondo Well, which had been drilled by the Deepwater Horizon, a mobile offshore drilling vessel owned and operated by Transocean. In April 2010, the cement that sealed the Macondo Well failed, the blowout preventer sitting atop the well also failed, and oil flowed uncontrolled through a riser connecting the well to the Deepwater Horizon vessel. The vessel then caught fire and capsized, and oil spewed through the broken riser into the Gulf of Mexico for months.

The United States brought a civil enforcement action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana against various entities involved in the spill. As relevant here, the government sought civil penalties under the Clean Water Act against Anadarko and BP. The Act imposes liability on the owner of any "facility from which oil or a hazardous substance is discharged" into navigable waters. The district court granted summary judgment in the government's favor on the issue of liability. Anadarko and BP appealed.

On appeal, the well owners argued that they had not violated the statute because oil entered the environment through the riser, which was part of Transocean's vessel, rather than escaping into the water directly from their well. The Fifth Circuit rejected that argument, reasoning that a "discharge" occurs where controlled confinement of a substance is lost. Here, there was no disputing that such confinement was lost in the well, even though the uncontrolled oil then flowed through Transocean's riser before entering the water. The Fifth Circuit deemed it irrelevant to the question of liability that Transocean might have been culpable as well, though that factor could influence the size of the penalty ultimately imposed. The Fifth Circuit accordingly affirmed.

For the full opinion, please see: http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/op...ub/12/12-30883-CV0.pdf.

Panel: Circuit Judges King, Benavides, and Dennis

Argument Date: 12/4/2013

Date of Issued Opinion: 6/4/2014

Docket Number: No. 12-30883

Decided: Affirmed

Counsel: Maggie B. Smith, U.S. Department of Justice, for Plaintiff-Appellee United States; David Bruce Salmons, Bingham McCutchen LLP, for Defendant-Appellant Anadarko Petroleum Corp.; Richard Cartier Godfrey, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, for Defendant-Appellant BP Exploration & Production, Inc.

Author of Opinion: Judge Benavides

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl

    Posted By: Aaron Bruhl @ 06/04/2014 09:29 PM     5th Circuit  

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