Behind a BP Engineer's Arrest in the Oil Spill Probe

Photograph by U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

More than two years after the BP-Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the federal government’s criminal investigation has produced its first charges. They will not be the last.

The arrest of a former BP engineer for deleting text messages he was supposed to preserve may seem like small potatoes for the mighty U.S. Department of Justice. What the obstruction charges really mean, however, is that prosecutors are focusing on whether BP tried to cover up the size of the spill in an attempt to trim billions of dollars from its ultimate criminal environmental-law fine.

As Bloomberg News reports here, U.S. prosecutors in New Orleans said Tuesday that Kurt Mix, who worked on internal BP efforts to estimate the amount of oil leaking from the well, deleted electronic messages between him and a supervisor. Mix, 50, was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice.

“Mix deleted numerous electronic records relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster response, including records concerning the amount of oil potentially flowing from the well, after being repeatedly informed of his obligation to maintain such records,” FBI Special Agent Barbara O’Donnell said in a sworn statement filed in the case.

The blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and caused the worst offshore spill in U.S. history, Bloomberg News adds. The Justice Department has been investigating the incident and the spill-rate estimates, O’Donnell said in her affidavit.

BP declined to comment on the case against Mix and said it would continue to cooperate with the U.S. investigation. “BP had clear policies requiring preservation of evidence in this case and has undertaken substantial and ongoing efforts to preserve evidence,” the London-based company said in a statement.

So what’s going on here? Why would the Justice Department go after such a low-level guy on charges that sound so peripheral?

The short answer is that this is how the federal government handles white-collar criminal investigations. Prosecutors lean on small players in hopes that they will plead guilty in exchange for a more lenient sentence and point a finger at people further up the corporate ladder.

In this case, the Justice Department appears to be sending a more specific signal—namely, that it is focusing on the extent of the spill and what precisely BP knew about it. (The New Orleans Times-Picayune’s dispatch on the charges has some good detail.)

BP has already paid about $8 billion in civil claims, and it agreed recently to settle with plaintiffs for another $7.8 billion. Then there are criminal fines for violations of the Clean Water Act. Penalties can range up to $1,100 per barrel for an accidental spill and up to $4,300 per barrel if the spiller is deemed to have been grossly negligent. BP and the government are debating privately just how many millions of barrels spewed into the Gulf of Mexico (somewhere between 4 million and 5 million) and whether the company deserves the gross negligence label.

Mix may have some relevant information on those questions. More important, he may know who else has relevant information on those questions. That’s at least part of the reason why he drew the short straw and the very first criminal charges. Much more is on the way.

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