Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Criminal Investigation


In each phase of the investigation and prosecution of complex white collar crimes, technology, innovation, and the success of cross-jurisdictional communication and collaboration can play a vital role. The investigatory and prosecutorial process may require innovative investigative strategies. These can include, but are not limited to, complex process-based investigations, development of new analytical and field methods, evaluations and modification of existing methods, and expert testimony.

On April 20, 2010, the oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, operating in the Macondo Prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, exploded and sank, resulting in the death of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon and the largest spill of oil in the history of marine oil drilling operations. BP Exploration and Production was the principal developer of the Macondo Prospect oil field where the accident occurred. The Deepwater Horizon, owned by Transocean Ltd., was under a contract with BP to drill an exploratory well. The companies, several subsidiaries in addition to BP and Transocean, were drilling in approximately 5,100 feet below the surface. Four million barrels of oil flowed from the damaged Macondo well over an 87-day period, before it was finally capped on July 15, 2010 (EPA, n.d.).

A Deepwater Horizon Task Force was quickly formed to look into criminal allegations of wrongdoing. The Deepwater Horizon Task Force, based in New Orleans, was supervised by the then Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer and led by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John D. Buretta, who served as the director of the task force. The task force included prosecutors from the Criminal Division and Environment and Natural Resources Division of the DOJ; the USAO for the Eastern District of Louisiana, as well as other USAOs; and investigating agents from the FBI, EPA CID, U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General (DOI OIG), NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE), U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard Criminal Investigative Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DOJ, 2013).

After working on the case for more than 3 years, lead prosecutors focused on charges of 11 counts of felony manslaughter; one count of felony obstruction of Congress; a violation of the U.S. code for Obstruction of Proceedings Before Departments, Agencies, and Committees; and violations of the Clean Water and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts.

In the initial stages of the criminal investigation that ultimately lead to indictments, agents had to review the evidence collected, depositions given, and reports of interviews that were conducted in the response to the explosion onboard the Deepwater Horizon and resulting catastrophic blowout of the well resulting in what has been considered the worst environmental disaster in the world.


For this discussion, assume you are a special agent on this multiagency task force. You are in the initial stages of the criminal investigation and you are mapping out for yourself just how you want to go about the investigation.

Refer to the media piece Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Timeline (link given in the resources) and your unit readings. Keep in mind the number of defendants included in the criminal investigation, the number of agencies involved, and the technology that was being utilized to drill one of the deepest wells in the world by a company that supplied more than 50 percent of our oil. Also keep in mind the technology utilized by criminal and regulatory personnel in the civil and criminal phase of the investigation to seize evidence and/or document the crime scene.

As a special agent in the initial stages of an investigation, you must apply your critical thinking skills as you assess evidence, depositions, and interviews.

Address the following in your main post:

  • Analyze two of the various types of evidence gathering techniques employed by criminal and regulatory agencies with respect to the explosion and blowout of the well.
  • Describe two specific challenges associated with the role technology played; specifically, with the use of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) in unprecedented depths for gathering evidence, new analytical and field methods, the huge volume of information generated from depositions and interviews from both civil and criminal and expert testimony in the investigation and prosecution of the BP case.
  • Assess two benefits of working in the type of task force set up by the then Assistant Attorney General Breuer, known as the Deepwater Horizon Task Force, in an attempt to synchronize efforts of federal, state, and local authorities in the collection of evidence and reports of interviews, and in the development of witness testimony.
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