NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Halliburton has resolved a Justice Department criminal probe of its role in the Gulf oil spill by agreeing to pay a $200,000 fine and admitting it destroyed evidence, but the company still has a powerful incentive to cut another deal with businesses and residents.
The plea agreement doesn't shield Halliburton from a high-stakes decision by a federal judge, who is considering how much the companies involved in the 2010 well blowout should pay for damage from the nation's worst offshore oil spill. How much each pays would be determined by how much fault the judge assigns them for the disaster that led to millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf.
Houston-based Halliburton, which was BP's cement contractor on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded, can take its chances on getting a favorable ruling by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier. Or it can eliminate much of the risk and potential liability by settling with a team of attorneys for tens of thousands of Gulf Coast businesses and residents who claim the spill cost them money.
The guilty plea could apply more pressure on Halliburton to get a deal done before Barbier rules, although one legal expert downplayed the possible effect of the criminal case on the outcome of the civil litigation.
"It's not directly related to their responsibility for the oil spill, so I wouldn't think it would have much influence at all," said Ed Sherman, a Tulane University law professor.
In a regulatory filing Friday, Halliburton said it is participating in court-facilitated settlement discussions to resolve a "substantial portion" of the private claims pending before Barbier. But the pace of those talks has recently slowed while BP challenges a portion of its own multibillion-dollar settlement with the team of plaintiffs' lawyers, the filing says.
"Reaching a settlement of the type contemplated by our current discussions involves a complex process, and there can be no assurance as to whether or when we may complete a settlement," it added.
Halliburton won't face any other criminal charges in connection with the case, though individual employees could still be charged. The Justice Department agreed not to prosecute the company for any other conduct related to the blowout, which triggered an explosion that killed 11 workers aboard the rig.
When BP reached its own criminal settlement with the Justice Department, the London-based oil giant agreed to pay a record $4 billion and plead guilty to manslaughter charges for the deaths of the rig workers. Rig owner Transocean Ltd., meanwhile, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and agreed to pay $400 million in criminal penalties.
Halliburton also agreed to make a $55 million contribution to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, but the payment wasn't a condition of the plea deal. The company reported net income of $679 million for the quarter that ended June 30.
Fadel Gheit, an Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. senior analyst who covers the oil and gas industry, said he was surprised that the criminal settlement didn't cost Halliburton far more money.
"I call it a traffic violation," he said. "This is for (a company) that destroyed evidence, for heaven's sake."
The destruction of evidence involved a post-spill review of the cement job on BP's well.
Before the blowout, Halliburton had recommended that BP use 21 "centralizers" to keep the casing centered in the wellbore. Centralizers are metal collars attached on the outside of the casing, which is a steel pipe placed in a well to maintain its integrity. Instead, BP decided to use only six centralizers.
In a court filing Thursday, federal prosecutors said Halliburton's cement technology director in May 2010 directed a senior program manager to run computer simulations on the centralizers. The results indicated there was little difference between using six or 21, data that could have supported BP's decision.
The cementing technology director allegedly instructed the program manager to delete the results. A different Halliburton employee also deleted data from a separate round of simulations that reached a similar conclusion, according to the Justice Department.
The allegations at the center of criminal case aren't new. In December 2011, BP sought sanctions against Halliburton over its handling of cement testing and modeling results.
Although the federal government doesn't have any civil claims against Halliburton, plaintiffs' attorneys in the civil case before Barbier have argued that the company's conduct contributed to the blowout and resulted from "gross negligence." Halliburton faces hefty fines if Barbier agrees with that claim.
The plaintiffs' lawyers cited Halliburton's "post-incident conduct" as evidence of its "willful and reckless disregard."
"Whether Halliburton's conduct in concealing or destroying evidence after the incident was intentional or not, it certainly points to a broken corporate culture lacking an appropriate level of commitment to the public, the environment, the government, and the industry," they wrote in a June 21 court filing.
In their response two weeks ago, Halliburton attorneys claimed there was no evidence that Halliburton or its employees concealed or destroyed evidence.
An arraignment for Halliburton is scheduled for Wednesday. It's unclear when the company will plead guilty.