NEW ORLEANS — Halliburton has resolved a Justice Department criminal inquiry 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.
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. The blast 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.