BP Spill Report Spreads Blame, What About Liability?

BP says its report released Wednesday was not designed to assign blame to any one company or action. But it does say other companies including BP were at fault in the accident. Will this change the company's legal or financial liability?

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BP's own report about the April explosion on its Gulf oil rig has rekindled the debate over responsibility. BP names Transocean and Halliburton as additional responsible players in events leading up to the fatal accident.

NPR's Yuki Noguchi looks at how the report may mitigate some of the legal and financial damage BP has sustained because of the spill.

YUKI NOGUCHI: At the outset, BP safety chief Mark Bly says in a video presentation, that this report was not about pointing fingers.

Mr. MARK BLY (BP): Our purpose was not to apportion blame or liability, but rather to learn, recommend areas for improvement, and share our lessons with others.

NOGUCHI: But, Bly explains, data were misread, warnings went unheeded, emergency systems failed. And for that, he says, there are many responsible parties.

Mr. BLY: These involved a number of companies, including BP.

NOGUCHI: Michael Green is a tort law expert at Wake Forest University Law School.

How lawyered would this document be, do you think?

Professor MICHAEL GREEN (Wake Forest University Law School): That's a good question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GREEN: That's a very good question. [

NOGUCHI: Green says typically post-disaster reports are prepared by outside lawyers. But this report was written by both internal and external analysts, and it's difficult to know how big a role independent consultants played in writing it.

Still, Green says, the report strikes a neutral and highly scientific tone. And therefore it might influence the Justice Department's own criminal investigation into the spill.

Prof. GREEN: I don't see how anybody who's investigating wouldn't look at this. Now, will this be the final word? I doubt it. And I'm fairly certain that other of the players who are involved are going to dispute aspects of it.

NOGUCHI: In fact, they already have. Rig owner Transocean called BP's report self-serving. And Halliburton said it was inaccurate in some places and omitted information in others. In order to protect their interests, the other companies involved with the rig have tried to paint BP as grossly negligent. In other words, as not only responsible but as having taken risks that it knew put lives and the environment in danger.

Prof. GREEN: There's no precise place where we can place the line between ordinary negligence and gross negligence.

NOGUCHI: Whether BP is found on the guilty side of that line will have huge financial impact on the company. If found grossly negligent, it will hurt BP's ability to claw back any of the billions it spent from any of its contractors or partners, and it will make the government's case against BP stronger.

Green says the report, as written, makes it difficult to pinpoint either BP or any of the other parties as grossly negligent.

Aside from any legal posturing, it's also likely BP released the report to court public opinion.

Tracy Hester is a professor of environmental law at the University of Houston. He also works in a firm that represents oil and gas companies. He says the report can also be read as an attempt to restore faith in the industry.

Professor TRACY HESTER (University of Houston): If the public doesn't have faith that the industry can understand what went wrong and prevent it from happening again, it makes it very difficult to argue for lifting the moratorium. And it also may result in more onerous restrictions on how drilling takes place.

NOGUCHI: Hester also says issuing a kind of mea culpa helps BP show the Department of Justice it's trying to act in good faith, and may lessen any punishment.

Prof. HESTER: An internal investigative report can be a very important tool when you're dealing with DOJ or other enforcement authorities, to demonstrate not only that you've got a handle on what happened, but also that you're working with the government to get to the bottom of it and make sure it doesn't happen again.

NOGUCHI: A Justice Department spokeswoman declined comment on the report or on its own investigation.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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