By Michael J. O’Brien

Yesterday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals released its decision in USA v. Don Moss, et al., 2017 WL 4273427 (5th Cir. 2017) affirming the Eastern District’s ruling that oilfield contractors cannot be held liable for criminal violations of the Outer Continental Shelf’s Lands Act (OCSLA), 43 U.S.C.§ 1331, et seq.  This is an important decision for all offshore contractors who were concerned about the Government’s intended criminalization of offshore accidents.

Moss stemmed from the November 16, 2012, explosion aboard the West Delta 32 Oil Production Platform located in the Gulf of Mexico. On November 16, 2012, independent contractors of the platform owner were performing repairs and modifications to the platform when the fatal explosion occurred. Three contractors were killed, several others were injured and oil was discharged into the Gulf.

Three years after the explosion, the USA issued criminal indictments against the owner/operator of the platform and the owner’s independent contractors that were working aboard the platform. In addition to charges related to the Clean Water Act, the contractors were also charged with multiple counts of knowing and willfully violating OCSLA’s regulations. At the district court level, the contractor defendants moved to dismiss the OCSLA charges on the grounds that the OCSLA regulations do not apply to oilfield contractors. The District Court agreed and dismissed the OCSLA charges against the contractors. The DOJ filed a timely appeal.

Central to the analysis of the District Court was OCSLA’s definition of the term “You” under the “BSEE Regulations” within the Code of Federal Regulations. 30 CFR §250.105 defines “You” as a “lessee, the owner or holder of operating rights, a designated operator or agent of the lessee(s), pipeline right-a-way holder, or a state lessee granted a right of use easement.” The District Court held that the definition of “You” “does not include oilfield contractors, subcontractors, or service providers.”

The Fifth Circuit agreed with the District Court’s analysis of the definition of “You.” Finding that the definition of “You” is unambiguous and limited in scope, the Moss Court held that the definition excludes contractors. Thus, the relevant OCSLA statues place criminal exposure squarely on the lessees and permitees not only for their own misfeasance, but also for that of the contractors and subcontractors they hire. The Fifth Circuit also noted that when the OCSLA regulations were first proposed, the intent was to hold operators responsible for their contractors’ actions and not to expand regulatory liability to contractors.

The Fifth Circuit was also influenced by the fact that for over a sixty (60) year period, the USA had only sought to enforce civil penalties against owner/operators, and it had never successfully criminally prosecuted a contractor under OCSLA. Indeed, the Federal Government did not regulate or prosecute oil field contractors as opposed to lessees, permitees, or well operators under OCSLA. Significantly, in March 2011, BSEE conducted a public workshop for oil and gas companies and advised in “bold fully capitalized underlined text” that the definition of “You” does not include a contractor. BSEE had also gone on record in 2010 that it “does not regulate contractors; we regulate operators.”

It was only until 2012, after the Deepwater Horizon Spill and a few months before the West Delta 32 explosion, that BSEE issued an “Interim Policy Document” opining that contractors may be liable for civil penalties under OCSLA. This change in policy was not entirely surprising given the view of the offshore industry by the administration at that time. However, the document made no mention of holding contractors criminally liable. As such, the Fifth Circuit determined that the consistency of over sixty (60) years of prior administrative practice in eschewing direct regulatory control over contractors, subcontractors, and individual employees supported the District Court’s conclusion that OCSLA regulations neither apply to, nor do they potentially criminalize, contractor conduct.  The “virtually non-existent past enforcement” of OCSLA regulations against contractors confirms that the regulations were never intended to apply to contractors. Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit held that while it was “novel” for the government to indict contractors for OCSLA violations, no judicial decision has supported such an indictment which was “at odds with a half  century of agency policy.”

Interestingly, the Fifth Circuit also commented on the pending appeal in the matter of Island Operating, Co. v. Jewell, 2016 WL 7436665 (W.D. La. 2016) where the District Court held that contractors could not be subject to a regulatory penalty or fine under OCSLA for Incidents of Non-Compliance (INC). In Moss, the Fifth Circuit indicated that it would not defer to the USA’s new policy position that contractors can be liable for civil and criminal penalties citing the 2011 “about face” that “flatly contradicts” the USA’s earlier interpretation of OCSLA’s regulations. The Fifth Circuit’s decision can easily be read to predict how the court will come down in Island Operating. So, while it is settled within the U.S. Fifth Circuit that the Federal Government (through BSEE) cannot criminalize a violation of Part 250 of the CFR’s (the BSEE Regs), this should not be read to expand that prohibition of criminal enforcement against contractors should other federal statutes, such as the Clean Water Act, be violated.