Some background: the Oil Pollution Act establishes strict liability for anyone who spills oil, but limits that liability in the case of offshore rigs to $75 million per spill, plus removal costs. Congress has contemplated removing those caps for the BP spill and all future spills.
A private consultant for energy companies told Congress on Tuesday that any effort to rewrite oil spill liability laws retroactively would likely face a legal challenge based on breach-of-contract claims.
W. Jackson Coleman, managing partner of EnergyNorthAmerica, said that if successful, those breach-of-contract claims could cost the federal government billions of dollars in payments to the oil and gas industry.
Coleman testified at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering legislation to lift limits on damage awards. A former lawyer for the Interior Department and for Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources, Coleman said the drilling leases purchased by oil and gas companies are contracts with the federal government, and that the contracts were signed with certain expectations about liability.
He said there is ample precedent for companies to sue when the federal government changes the terms of those leases.
In 2000, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had to return $158 million to Mobil Oil Exploration & Producing Southeast Inc. and Marathon Oil Co. after Congress passed a law limiting drilling off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for an 8-1 majority in the case, Mobil Oil Exploration v. United States. Coleman worked on the case when it was before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and he was at the Interior Department.
"Certain expectations about liability?"
Since when could you sue the United States government for monetary damages over your "expectations" about its laws?
The Mobil Oil Exploration case was an entirely different situation. There, the government sold a bunch of leases and then passed laws that precluded them from complying with certain terms of the leases. Such is, undoubtedly, a breach of contract: the government did not do what it contracted to do.
In the Gulf of Mexico, BP bought leases from the United States government to conduct offshore drilling. The government complied with every last word of those lease contracts. All on its own, BP screwed up and initiated the revenge of the dinosaurs.
The fact that BP bought the leases with the "expectation" that they would be subject only to the liability caps in the Oil Pollution Act is irrelevant. The government changes its laws all the time, including those relating to liability. In MGM v. Grokster, for example, the Supreme Court invented a wholly-new cause of action for "contributory" copyright infringement, putting Grokster out of business.
In one sense, though, these arguments over the Oil Pollution Act may be a tempest in a teapot, or I suppose a drop in the bucket.
First, the Oil Pollution Act’s caps don’t apply if the spill was caused by "gross negligence or willful misconduct" or "the violation of an applicable Federal safety, construction, or operating regulation." From the little bit we know about Transocean using seawater instead of mud or cement, and about the impotence of the "failsafe" blowout preventer, at least one of those is going to be met, possibly all of them.
Second, there are a lot of ways to sue BP; the common law of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida all allow full recovery under negligence and trespass claims when a person is damaged by someone else’s irresponsible conduct.