Key pieces of evidence about who is really at fault for one of the world's worst oil spills could soon be in the hands of the leading suspects as BP and its partner contractors are set to begin salvaging the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
The US government is leading what
could become a criminal investigation into the disaster. But it does not have the technical expertise to gather evidence some 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
Transocean, which leased the rig to BP, is expected to take charge of the salvage operations. A spokesman contacted by AFP declined to say when that will begin or who is likely to be involved now that work to kill the runaway well is nearly complete.
BP also declined to answer questions about the salvage operations or the investigation.
Experts say the salvage process is likely to be mired in legal wrangling 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 ensure that the two companies don't destroy evidence by doing a shoddy job of the salvage work.
But they say there's an incentive for all involved to stay honest during the salvage operation.
"Ordinarily you might have had concerns about the fox guarding the hen house," says Stephen Herman, a New Orleans-based attorney representing hundreds of claimants against BP who has been in court for preliminary proceedings about the salvage.
"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."
In addition to BP and Transocean, investment firms Anadarko and Mitsui will also have a stake in the salvage operation, after putting up 25 percent and 10 percent of the capital for the deepwater drilling exploration.
They could be liable for those percentages of any damages awarded in litigation, unless they can prove "gross negligence or willful misconduct" on the part of BP or Transocean.
Cameron International, which made the blowout prevention system supposed to stop the leak, and Halliburton, which supplied a crew to concrete the well, are also likely to be involved in the salvage operation, because 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," said Martin Davies, professor of maritime law at Tulane University.
"If BP can show gross negligence on behalf of anybody else, then it can shift some of the losses."
The stakes were heightened Tuesday when 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.
BP is also likely to face litigation from other oil companies who have suffered loss of profits due to the six-month offshore drilling moratorium following the incident, under the terms of the Federal Oil Spill and Pollution Act.
The federal investigation will also determine how much BP has to pay in fines for the 4.9 million barrels of crude which gushed out of its runaway well before it was finally capped on July 15.
Fines under the Clean Water Act range from 1,100 dollars per barrel spilled to as high as 4,300 dollars per barrel spilled, if negligence is proven, meaning BP could theoretically face fines of up to 17.6 billion dollars for the 4.1 million barrels that poured into the sea.
"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 added.
"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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