The off-shore oil rigs along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico are no place for the weak. Hundreds of men, a certain type of men, live and breath the oil they drill from under the ocean’s floor. Sometimes 40 or 50 miles from land, the hardened and muscular workers, with hands so dark from grease that they have long ago given up trying to scrub it off, toil in these mini-cities to bring precious energy to the world’s markets. The massive floating contraptions are their homes. These are company men.
More than two years after the BP oil company’s Deepwater Horizon rig blew up, killing 11 men and resulting in the largest oil spill in US history, the Justice Department announced last Thursday that BP would pay $4.5 billion in fines and plead guilty to 14 felony charges. There will be other liabilities under the Clean Water Act, but BP’s admission of guilt begins the last chapter of a political and environmental drama that unfolded during the spring and summer of 2010. (For the record, I worked on the response to the oil spill when I served in the Obama Administration, but had no ties to the subsequent legal proceedings.)
The settlement isn’t the big story; BP had a profit of $5.2 billion in this year’s third quarter alone. And BP’s admission of guilt on 14 felony charges is hardly unprecedented. The truly consequential aspect of this case is the concurrent criminal charges filed against three BP employees, two of them supervisors on the rig. The company’s plea arrangement leaves the three defendants alone — as villains or perhaps as scapegoats — to fend for themselves.
Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, according to the indictment, were responsible for assessing pressure tests from the sea bottom well up to the rig. An incorrect estimate, especially one that underestimates the force of the oil, puts the entire rig at risk of losing control of the mechanical devices that pull oil from the ocean floor. Vidrine and Kaluza were apparently aware of abnormal readings, but did not notify any superiors or stop the drilling. The third defendant, David Rainey, apparently made several knowingly false statements to Congress and investigators about the quantity of oil leaking from the ocean floor; the quantity matters in determinations of environmental impact.
It is the case against Vidrine and Kaluza, who vigorously deny the allegations, that will change the nature of the off-shore drilling industry, the oil industry, and indeed any other high-risk industry. And that is the right result, whether they are found guilty or not. The prosecutions against them amount to a theory that “public trust” extends not just to the company, but to the individuals who work for it. By focusing on their conduct, the Justice Department, in the words of Attorney General Eric Holder, sent a “clear message.” That message: that being a company man is no longer a defense.
But if the indictments are meant to punish, they are also meant to guide conduct in the future. Individuals should be under no obligation to perform as company men, a message surely not to be missed by employees in industries that perform at high risk for high profits. The indictments break the myth that an employee should only think of what’s best for his employer; BP, in admitting its own guilt, protected its senior management from prison but left Vidrine and Kaluza to face a courtroom. (The charges against Rainey are much more typical in that they are akin to perjury.)
“It is almost inconceivable that any fair-minded person would blame this hard-working and diligent man for one of the most catastrophic events in the history of the oil business,” said Vidrine’s attorney, Bob Habans. Vidrine is 65 and a life-long company man. Habans saved his most damning words for BP: It “succumbed to the pressure” and abandoned its men.
Last week, the International Energy Agency reported that the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the largest oil producer by 2020, and become a net oil exporter by 2030. Subsoil tracking, offshore oil drilling, and underground coal mining are growth industries that will continue to take lives. Last Friday, two men died in a fire on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
These are dangerous enterprises, performed by company men. And if these employees now understand their bosses are unlikely to prioritize allegiance over the threat of a courtroom, then the public trust is served. And the case is already won.