Judge Clears BP of Criminal Negligence In 2009 Spill, Lifts Three-Year Probation

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska—BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. was not criminally negligent in its management of a pipeline that ruptured and spilled oil and produced water in 2009, and thus did not violate terms of its probation imposed after the company's 2006 Prudhoe Bay oil-pipeline spill, a federal judge ruled Dec. 27 (United States v. BP, D. Alaska, No. 3:01-cr-125, 12/27/11).

Judge Ralph Beistline of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, ruling on a probation-revocation motion sought by the Justice Department, concluded that while BP may have erred in its management of a pipeline at the Lisburne field, it was acting within industry standards and the line's freeze-up and rupture were, as BP contended, unprecedented and surprising events.

With BP cleared of negligence, the company's three-year probation term is considered over, Beistline said.

“While the Court would prefer a failsafe system where accidents never happen, it recognizes that human beings and engineering practices are not perfect and that, on occasion, unexpected or unanticipated accidents can and will happen,” Beistline said in his ruling.

“Certainly, in retrospect, things could have been done differently that may, or may not, have prevented this spill. But in the instant case, the Court concludes, based on the evidence presented, that BP was following accepted industry practices at all relevant times and could not have reasonably expected a blowout similar to the one that occurred on November 29, 2009. Further, the Court concludes that once the freeze up was discovered, BP acted reasonably in addressing the problem,” he wrote.

The ruling followed a hearing held Nov. 29 though Dec. 7 on the government's motion to revoke BP's probation. Had probation been revoked, BP could be subject to additional fines beyond the $25 million it paid in penalties, restitution, and other fees for the 2006 spill. BP could have been subject as well to an extension of the three-year probation imposed under that settlement (239 DEN A-11, 12/13/11).

Prosecutors Accuse BP of Lax Management.

Government prosecutors argued that BP's management of the Lisburne line was so lax that it breached terms established in the 2007 criminal settlement for the 212,000 gallon crude oil spill at the Prudhoe Bay field.

Prosecutors said BP ignored months of alarms that warned of lowered temperatures in the line, where large ice segments eventually formed. With ice clogging the line, internal pressure built and the line ruptured on Nov. 29, 2009, blowing a two-foot-long gash. A mixture of crude oil and produced water spilled. The spilled amount totaled 45,828 gallons, of which about 13,500 was oil, according to state and federal authorities.

Government prosecutors argued that BP failed to heed lessons from another pipeline breach caused by internal freezing, an event that occurred in 2001 at Prudhoe Bay.

But BP argued that the Lisburne alarm system was not set up to warn about potential freezing, and that it had never seen a similar situation to the 2009 pipeline rupture. The company defended its training and monitoring program, and it said the 2001 pipeline incident had completely different circumstances. The company also pointed to a different 2007 freeze-up at a Lisburne line that was handled successfully when the company allowed the line to thaw gradually.

Beistline said he found BP's arguments about sound management compelling. He noted that the Lisburne line in question had operated for 24 years without a similar spill incident. But he said the company should now learn its lesson from the 2009 spill.

“In the future … if a similar freeze up and spill were to occur under similar circumstances, the Court would view the entire matter differently,” Beistline said in his ruling. “BP is now clearly on notice of the potential that a freeze up could occur within an 18 inch common line that is part of a looped line system and that a freeze up could cause the pipe to burst. It is incumbent upon BP to make sure this does not happen again.”

Site Subject to Clean Water Act Jurisdiction.

Beistline rejected one BP line of defense—that the spilled material was not subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction.

BP had argued at the hearing and in a brief filed prior to it that the spill site, an area of tundra wetlands, was barricaded by a road and isolated from any waters of the United States and therefore not subject to the act's jurisdiction, unlike most of the tundra wetlands on the North Slope.

Both sides presented testimony during the hearing about North Slope hydrological patterns and the fate of spilled material during the summer thaw. Beistline said he accepted some of BP's arguments but found overall that, “under the unique facts of this case,” Clean Water Act jurisdiction would likely apply, “for it appears that at least a portion of the oil spill (the oil plume) impacted the wetlands north of the road, albeit minimally.”

But since he found BP was not negligent, the question of jurisdiction was moot, he said.

A BP spokesman welcomed the ruling.

“We are pleased with the decision and appreciate the court's attention,” BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said in an e-mail. “We know that the privilege of working in Alaska comes with a responsibility to maintain high standards. We will continue our commitment to running safe and compliant operations.”

By Yereth Rosen  

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