Texaco Inc. and a former employee have agreed to plead guilty to a two-count criminal charge of failing to conduct critical safety testing on an offshore oil platform in the Channel Islands area, Justice Department officials said Wednesday.
The criminal complaint, filed by the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, states that Texaco and a former drilling supervisor, Bobby R. Brogdin, 48, of Bakersfield, intentionally decided not to conduct weekly safety testing as required by federal law.
Such testing involves safety equipment known as "blowout preventers." Texaco and Brogdin failed to perform the tests as scheduled on Dec. 29 and 30, 1986, at Platform Harvest, a Texaco oil platform 11 miles off Point Conception, officials said.
According to Special Assistant U.S. Atty. Janet L. Goldstein, who oversaw the investigation, the testing is "a fail-safe mechanism designed to prevent blowouts. . . . If the tests are not done and there had been a problem, it could have led to a blowout."
A blowout is an uncontrolled flow of oil, gas or water from a well. Blowout preventers are large valves attached to the top of the well casing that seal off the well in the event of an explosion.
In a plea agreement, Texaco agreed to pay a fine of $750,000, subject to final approval by the U.S. District Court, and could face a maximum penalty of $1 million.
The plea agreement did not contain a recommendation by the government regarding Brogdin, who faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.
Bob Hammond, media affairs specialist for Texaco, said Wednesday: "A single Texaco employee acting alone was responsible for the violation." Brogdin, he added, was fired 10 days after the corporation became aware of the incident and conducted its own investigation.
Neither Brogdin nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
A statement released by Texaco said the drilling supervisor had an "equipment problem" and without seeking permission of the U.S. Department of the Interior Minerals Management Service, which enforces the testing regulations, allowed the drilling contractor, Helmerich & Payne International Drilling Co., to delay tests on the blowout preventer for 48 hours.
A grand jury in Los Angeles returned a six-count indictment Wednesday against Helmerich & Payne. The Tulsa-based company is accused of falsely showing on its drillers' log that the blowout preventer test had been done on Dec. 29, 1986.
Federal investigators were tipped off to the incident by a whistle-blowing Helmerich & Payne employee, Avery Cook, who was then fired from his $4,200-a-month job. Late last year, he agreed to drop a $10-million suit against his former employer in exchange for a $560,000 settlement.
According to Texaco, the failure to do the test on time "created no appreciable risk to the facility or the environment, since the drilling operation had not yet reached a producing gas zone."
Hammond said no oil has been produced from the platform since it was installed in 1985, pending the installation of a processing plant onshore to be operated by Chevron at Gaviota in Santa Barbara County. "Until that plant is permitted, the platform cannot begin production."
The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission has not approved the plant because natural gas from Platform Harvest has higher concentrations of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas than Texaco had applied for, according to Dianne Guzman, director of the county's resource management department.
The 21-well, $180-million Platform Harvest is one of two Texaco platforms in California and one of 20 off the coast of Santa Barbara County.
Texaco Inc. and Brogdin are due to be arraigned Dec. 12.