British Petroleum is, rightfully, taking a lot of grief for the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but we should save some of our vituperation for Transocean Ltd., the company that leased the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to BP. Transocean is no innocent bystander in this matter. It presumably has some responsibility for the safety condition of the rig, which its employees helped operate (nine of them died in the April 20 explosion).
Transocean also brings some bad karma to the situation. The company, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, is the result of a long series of corporate mergers and acquisitions dating back decades. One of the firms that went into that mix was Sedco, which was founded in 1947 as Southeastern Drilling Company by Bill Clements, who would decades later become a conservative Republican governor of Texas.
In 1979 a Sedco rig in the Gulf of Mexico leased to a Mexican oil company experienced a blowout, resulting in what was at the time the worst oil spill the world had ever seen. As he surveyed the oil-fouled beaches of the Texas coast, Gov. Clements made the memorable remarks: “There’s no use in crying over spilled milk. Let’s don’t get excited about this thing” (Washington Post 9/11/1979).
At the time, Sedco was being run by Clements’s son, and the family controlled the company’s stock. The federal government sued Sedco over the spill, claiming that the rig was unseaworthy and its crew was not properly trained. The feds sought about $12 million in damages, but Sedco drove a hard bargain and got away with paying the government only $2 million. It paid about the same amount to settle lawsuits filed by fishermen, resorts and other Gulf businesses. Sedco was sold in 1984 to oil services giant Schlumberger, which transferred its offshore drilling operations to what was then known as Transocean Offshore in 1999.
In 2000 an eight-ton anchor that accidentally fell from a Transocean rig in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured an underwater pipeline, causing a spill of nearly 100,000 gallons of oil. In 2003 a fire broke out on a company rig off the Texas coast, killing one worker and injuring several others. As has been reported in recent days, a series of fatal accidents at company operations last year prompted the company to cancel executive bonuses. It’s also come out that in 2005 a Transocean rig in the North Sea had been cited by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive for a problem similar to what apparently caused the Gulf accident.
Safety is not the only blemish on Transocean’s record. It is one of those companies that engaged in what is euphemistically called corporate inversion—moving one’s legal headquarters overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. Transocean first moved its registration to the Cayman Islands in 1999 and then to Switzerland in 2008. It kept its physical headquarters in Houston, though last year it moved some of its top officers to Switzerland to be able to claim that its principal executive offices were there.
In addition to skirting U.S. taxes, Transocean has allegedly tried to avoid paying its fair share in several countries where its subsidiaries operate. The company’s 10-K annual report admits that it has been assessed additional amounts by tax authorities in Brazil and that it is the subject of civil and criminal tax investigations in Norway.
In 2007 there were reports that Transocean was among a group of oil services firms being investigated for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in connection with alleged payoffs to customs officials in Nigeria. No charges have been filed.
An army of lawyers will be arguing over the relative responsibility of the various parties in the Gulf spill for a long time to come. But one thing is clear: Transocean, like BP, brought a dubious legacy to this tragic situation.