Was Deepwater Horizon a “stationary source”?

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board served administrative subpoenas on Transocean in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  United States v. Transocean Deepwater Drilling, Inc., No. 13-20243 (Sept. 18, 2014).  Transocean contended that the Board lacked jurisdiction because the ill-fated rig was not a “stationary source” within the meaning of the Board’s enabling statute; the majority disagreed, concluding that at the time of the accident, the rig “was physically connected (though not anchored) at that site and maintained a fixed position.”

Transocean also contended that this sentence deprived the Board of jurisidiction: “The Board shall not be authorized to investigate marine oil spills, which the National Transportation Safety Board is authorized to investigate.”  After a foray into the grammatical thicket of “which” v. “that,” the majority concluded that the Board was not categorically barred from investigating oil spills in light of the “overall regulatory scheme.”

A dissent disagreed with both conclusions, reminded that “[f]or the sake of maintaining limited government under the rule of law, courts must be vigilant to sanction improper administrative overreach,” and noted that at least 17 other investigations were conducted into the accident.

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