Legal Briefing: Federal Agency Sued for Lax Oversight in BP Spill


A daily look at legal news and the business of law...

Dept. of Interior Sued for Letting BP Drill Without Emergency Plan

How lax was the scandal-ridden Minerals Management Service's oversight of offshore drilling? So lax, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday, that the federal agency exempted BP's Deepwater Horizon and other offshore drilling platforms from basic legal requirements regarding safety -- exemptions directly related to the current issues surrounding the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Specifically, the lawsuit charges that the MMS, which operates within the Department of the Interior, issued notices that companies drilling in specific areas of the Gulf of Mexico didn't need to file response plans for blowout and worst-case spill scenarios. The Service simply handed out permits for drilling without the information. The National Law Journal reports that the Service itself allegedly failed to analyze the consequences of catastrophic spills as the law required it to do. Reuters notes that only rigs near Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama got the waivers -- the legal protections remained for deep-water rigs near Texas.

What would've happened had the MMS been serving the public and enforcing the law instead of getting serviced by the industry it apparently chose not regulate? Maybe the Deepwater Horizon and other rigs wouldn't have been built. Or maybe they would have, but BP and its oil-industry cohorts would have already planned for catastrophes like today's, resulting in quicker solutions and less damage.

Or maybe not: The Press-Register of Alabama reports on spill clean-up plans that BP did file, in which BP boasted that it could clean up a spill 60 times larger than the size it currently estimates for the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Does that mean that BP was delusional in its response plan, or perhaps that this spill is far worse than is currently claimed by the company? That same document includes language supporting the lawsuit's central claim: "A scenario for a potential blowout of the well from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons is not required for the operations proposed in this [document.]"

The lawsuit, Gulf Restoration Network and Sierra Club v. Salazar, is asking the MMS to stop issuing these special exemptions, and to review all the offshore rig plans that have gone forward with the exemptions. It would be nice if the government didn't fight this suit, and instead quickly agreed to take those actions.

Hershey Sues to Protect Chocolate Bar's Image

Williams Sonoma (WSM), the high end retailer of kitchen goods, sells a brownie pan that makes brownies look a lot like a Hershey Bar. Hershey (HSY) doesn't appreciate the implicit homage, and has sued for trademark infringement, reports ABA Journal.

And in the Business of Law...

Kirkland & Ellis appear to be the first winners from BP's massive oil spill. The ABA Journal reports that they'll be representing BP in spill litigation.

• Typically, law school grads begin working at their new firms in the fall, and no would-be associate with a freshly minted degree would want to have her start date deferred -- much less deferred until January 2012. That said, not all 2012 deferrals are equal. Above the Law reports that Weil, Gotschal deferees will get health insurance, and those who chose to do 1,000 hours of firm approved work will get a $75,000 stipend. At Mintz Levin, on the other hand, the deferees get health insurance and a $15,000 salary advance (which is essentially a $15,000 pay cut in 2012) and starting in April 2011, a $2500 a month stipend. Of course, a job offer (and however solid these offers really are, the jobs could still vaporize by 2012) and health insurance are far more than many people have in this economy.