BP, Halliburton: Best Frenemies Forever?

Halliburton offices in Fort Worth, Texas.

Halliburton has pleaded guilty to destroying evidence in a federal criminal case deriving from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The giant oil-services company, the second-biggest in the world in its industry, will pay the maximum statutory fine of $200,000, and has also pledged to contribute $55 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Multiple legal cases continue to move through the courts, including class-action lawsuits and a consolidated civil case, called the multi-district litigation (MDL), that is deciding liability and damages among the companies involved in the Macondo well blowout, including also BP and Transocean, who owned the rig.

Halliburton admitted in this case that it destroyed computer simulations of different models for cementing the well casing that it prepared after the accident. The technical advice Halliburton gave to BP about the well casing could affect Halliburton’s liability in the multi-district litigation, which resumes before Judge Carl Barbier of the U.S. Eastern District of Louisiana in September.

Yet, despite all the legal bickering, the companies are still cooperating out in the oil fields.

“It’s just the nature of the business,” says Barbara Shook, senior reporter at large at the Energy Intelligence Group in Houston. “In the oil and gas business, companies sue each other over one project while they’re joint venture partners on another project.”

That’s because when they’re not in court -- which is most of the time -- these oil exploration and production companies have to pick the best technical partner for any project, says equity analyst Stewart Glickman, who covers the oil services sector at S&P Capital IQ in New York.

“BP’s a huge company,” says Glickman. “Halliburton’s a huge company. There are going to be wells drilled and completed all over the world. The geophysics are really going to dictate who they hire and where.”

Plus, says Shook, these and other major industry players are working out in the inland shale fields of North Dakota, Texas or Northern Alberta, or the deep ocean off the Gulf Coast, Brazil or West Africa. All over the globe, fossil fuels are ever-harder and more expensive to pump out of the ground. Shook says there are only a few companies big enough to play in this pond.

“We’re talking about waters that are 10,000 feet deep, and then going another 20,000 to 35,000 feet below that,” says Shook. “These are very complicated projects. They require companies that have extremely strong balance sheets to handle the liabilities should another accident ever occur.”

And so, in spite of what’s come out about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and what these companies accuse each other of doing to make it worse, they have no choice but to make nice in business, as their lawyers keep fighting in court.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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