BP Shouldn’t Get White House E-Mails in Spill Case, U.S. Says

BP Plc isn’t entitled access to e-mail communications between the White House and other top U.S. officials during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010, a government lawyer told a federal judge.

“Disclosure of these documents would chill the open and candid discussion of internal opinions, ideas, and strategies” among federal policy makers, including the Executive Office of the President, during a future incident like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gregory H. Woods, general counsel for the Department of Energy, said in a court filing yesterday.

Woods said the energy department already has produced more than 169,000 documents requested by BP defendants in the civil case being litigated in New Orleans. The department maintains that 28 e-mails are privileged communications and therefore off-limits. BP wants a federal judge to examine 21 government e-mails to determine if the company can use them to defend itself against litigation brought by the U.S.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who presides over the litigation, last month set a Jan. 14 trial date to determine fault for the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and resulting undersea leak.

Woods categorized the e-mails at issue as policy “deliberations” among top federal officials in three areas: the release of information to the public; the issuance of guidance and directives to BP; and the starting or stopping of “specific response actions during the spill.”

Scott Dean, a spokesman for London-based BP, had no immediate comment on the government’s court filing.

‘Flow Rates’

One e-mail, “Re: Flow Rates,” contains discussions between White House officials, Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar, National Incident Commander Thad Allen, with copies to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, “concerning how and when to address information in future press communications” about the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

“The resulting harm to the Government’s internal deliberation process would outweigh any potential benefit to the public or litigant from disclosure of the documents because their release could reasonably be expected to chill the free and open communication among policy makers,” Woods told U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan in yesterday’s filing.

In a May 29 letter, BP lawyer Robert Gasaway asked the judge to review the high-level government e-mails and decide whether the company’s needs to defend itself in court “outweigh any purported interests in keeping secret what looks to be 21 highly significant documents.” The company said the judge should also decide what facts in the e-mails should be disclosed –- or possibly redacted.

Blowout, Explosion

The blowout and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers. The accident prompted hundreds of lawsuits against BP; Transocean Ltd., the Vernier, Switzerland-based owner and operator of the rig; and Halliburton Co., which provided cementing services.

The U.S. government sued BP, Transocean and BP’s partners in the well, Mitsui & Co.’s MOEX Offshore 2007 and The Woodlands, Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp., alleging violations of federal pollution laws. Louisiana and Alabama sued as well. MOEX has settled the federal pollution claims.

BP in March agreed to pay an estimated $7.8 billion to resolve most private plaintiffs’ claims for economic loss, property damage and spill and cleanup-related injuries.

The plaintiffs’ and government claims against BP’s contractors on the doomed Macondo well remain after the settlement reached in March.

A trial would cover these lawsuits, federal and state government pollution claims against BP, and cross-claims among BP and its partner companies involved in the Macondo site and rig.

The case is In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL-2179, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

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