Court: Toppled rig’s owners can’t sue Coast Guard contractor

NEW ORLEANS — The owner of Gulf of Mexico oil wells broken in 2004 cannot demand damages from a federal contractor who says his equipment has captured enough oil to fill scores of tank trucks, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld a decision that Taylor Energy Co. LLC cannot sue Couvillion Group LLC for trespass because Couvillion has a federal contract to contain oil from a spill that began when Hurricane Ivan toppled a Taylor platform off Louisiana.

Representatives of Taylor, which sold its leases and assets four years after the rig was destroyed and now exists only for the specific purpose of dealing with the accident, did not respond to an email and telephone call seeking comment Thursday.

The company has consistently said that oil stirred up from sediments, rather than leaking wells, is the main cause of a persistent sheen on the surface, and that it involves much less oil than others say.

Timmy Couvillion, president and CEO of Couvillion Group, disagrees.

“Taylor Energy has continuously made the assertions that the sky is not blue and if we say it, saying it makes it true,” he said Thursday.

“This is a money-grubbing story,” said his attorney, Patrick McShane.

McShane said the suit is among 11 that Taylor has filed in attempts to get $432 million out of a federal escrow account set up to stop the leaks if engineers ever figure out how to do that.

Taylor plugged some of the wells but says further attempts would endanger workers and create a much greater environmental danger than currently exists.

In 2019, a federal judge in Washingon, D.C., dismissed a suit saying the U.S. Interior Department should be made to return the money.

The underwater mudslide that overturned Taylor’s platform also dragged it nearly 560 feet (170 meters) and buried the pipe casings for its cluster of 28 oil wells under up to 165 feet (50 meters) of sediment.

“The well bores for the 28 wells … rest in a tangled web,” U.S. District Judge Gerard Guidry noted in his August 2020 summary judgment dismissing Taylor’s claims against Couvillion.

The 5th Circuit upheld his ruling that Couvillion’s contract with the Coast Guard was valid and correctly supervised, and makes the company immune to trespass claims.

The agency had ordered Taylor to end the leak in October 2018, one day after The Washington Post published an article including what was then a new estimate that 10,500 to 29,400 gallons (39,747 to 111,291 liters) of oil was leaking daily.

Taylor sued to block that order the same day it sued Couvillion Group, which was hired in November 2018.

Couvillion set up its containment system on April 12, 2019, and had captured 735,000 gallons (nearly 2.8 million liters) by late May, according to its reports.

That would be enough to fill about 58 large tanker trailers.

The amount of oil coming from the area has been a contentious issue from the start.

A study by Taylor consultants, published last year in a peer-reviewed journal, said the sheens contained synthetics that probably came from work done before 2012.

Though they said Couvillion’s figures had never been verified, the consultants noted that “the containment tent … has resulted in a substantial reduction in the frequency and extent of surface sheens.”

This “respite” should be used to have the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine study what could be done, they wrote.