By STAN LEHMAN, Associated Press
SAO PAULO (AP) — Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against 17 Chevron and Transocean company executives on Wednesday for an oil leak in the Atlantic, a move deemed outrageous by those targeted but applauded by environmentalists.
Prosecutors accused the executives of environmental crimes, of misleading Brazil's oil regulator about safety plans and of not providing accurate information in the wake of the spill.
At least 110,000 gallons (416,000 liters) of oil seeped through cracks on the ocean floor near a Chevron Corp. appraisal well off the Rio de Janeiro coast in November. The well drilled by Transocean Ltd. has since been sealed, but a small amount of seepage reappeared in recent days, raising concern the damage is not yet over.
The federal prosecutors' office in Rio de Janeiro said in an emailed statement that the two companies and 17 of its executives have been charged with "crimes against the environment." Executives could face up to 31 years in prison. A judge will decide if the case will go to trial, which would be a lengthy process given the number of defendants, the complexity of the case and the Brazilian legal system's room for numerous appeals.
"These charges are outrageous and without merit. Once all the facts are fully examined, they will demonstrate that Chevron and its employees responded appropriately and responsibly to the incident," said Chevron spokesman Kurt Glaubitz. "Chevron will vigorously defend the company and its employees."
Prosecutor Eduardo Santos de Oliveira, however, said that "Chevron and Transocean have caused a contamination bomb with a prolonged effect."
The charges come as Brazil works feverishly to develop massive offshore oil fields discovered in recent years, discoveries that hold upward of 50 billion barrels of oil and that officials are counting on catapulting the nation permanently into developed-world status.
Some fear that the tough stance against Chevron will discourage much-needed foreign investment into developing the fields. While Brazil's state-controlled oil company Petrobras is considered by many as the globe's leading developer of offshore finds, the sheer volume of the oil reserves means the company cannot fully produce them alone.
"If you start locking up executives, people back in other oil companies like Shell, BP, ENI and anyone else with a concession in Brazil will notice and become wary," Eric Smith, an offshore oil expert at Tulane University in New Orleans.
But others think there is simply too much money to be made in Brazil's oil bonanza to scare off companies, and say this case doesn't reflect a newly aggressive attitude toward Big Oil.
"I don't see this as reflecting an anti-foreign company stance by the government nor do I think it will be seen as such by investors," said Christopher Garman, U.S.-based Eurasia Group consulting firm. "I don't see this having an impact on the interest of investors investing in Brazil."
Garman noted that Brazil's prosecutors are independent of interference from the government and that President Dilma Rousseff, herself a former chairwoman of the board of directors at Petrobras, remains committed to filling Brazil's coffers with oil revenue.
Among those charged Wednesday with environmental crimes are six Americans, five Brazilians, two French and Australian nationals, one British citizen and one Canadian. They include the heads of the Brazilian subsidiaries of both Chevron and Transocean.
George Buck, chief operating officer for Chevron's Brazilian division and three other Chevron executives have also been charged with providing authorities with a "deceptive" emergency plan and "altering documents delivered to government officials," according to prosecutors' statement. It didn't provide more details.
"The leak affected the region's maritime ecosystem, could lead to the extinction of species and jeopardize the area's economy," the statement said.
Prosecutors asked that that all the assets of those charged be seized, that each person be fined $555,555 and each company $5.6 million. A judge ruled late last week that none of the executives could leave Brazil.