On Thursday, Halliburton admitted to destroying evidence connected to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
Its punishment? A $200,000 fine to settle criminal charges, and three years of probation, which could result in higher fines for future violations. Critics are pooh-poohing the size of the fine, especially considering:
- Halliburton, which designed and built the Deepwater Horizon well for BP, reported $28.5 billion in total revenue for 2012.
- The disaster was the worst oil spill in U.S. history, killing 11 workers and releasing nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of three months.
"The $200,000 fine is, obviously, unlikely to make a noticeable mark on Halliburton's balance sheet," says Slate's Josh Voorhees. Other members of the media responded with more incredulity:
Halliburton's fine for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is $200,000, the maximum possible. Now that's what I call corporate accountability!
— Peter Henderson (@Henderburn) July 26, 2013
Halliburton destroys evidence in Deepwater Horizon disaster -- and gets a slap on the wrist!??! http://t.co/tj09gQRQk2
— Sally Kohn (@sallykohn) July 26, 2013
Halliburton initially defended itself against charges of negligence by claiming that it had told BP that 21 metal collars should be used to stabilize the drill pipe, and that BP management ignored its advice and used only six.
Now Halliburton has admitted that it told employees on two occasions to destroy records of computer simulations that showed little difference between using six and 21 of these collars, potentially shifting blame away from BP's decision-making and toward other questions surrounding the fatal explosion — like whether the cement provided by Halliburton to seal the drilling pipe was flawed.
Halliburton has been quick to put the issue behind it, releasing a statement saying, "The Department of Justice acknowledged the company's significant and valuable cooperation during the course of its investigation." It also announced a "voluntary contribution" of $55 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Halliburton's plea agreement still has to be approved in court. And Halliburton's admission of guilt in this case could hurt in the civil trial against it by the Gulf states, where lawyers have already made the accusation that the company hid or destroyed evidence of tests.
"This could impact how the civil litigation is resolved, potentially imposing more liability on Halliburton than we originally thought," Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, told The New York Times.
Still, if the plea agreement is approved, Halliburton will get away with paying far less than BP, which was forced to pony up $4.5 billion to settle criminal charges.
Halliburton is also facing a federal antitrust probe concerning its fracking operations.