That way, Halliburton “buys immunity from the potential disaster of an Arthur Andersen outcome,” Weisberg said. Andersen, the auditing firm, went out of business and was convicted of obstruction of justice over the demise of the energy firm Enron just over a decade ago.
People familiar with the thinking of officials at Halliburton said the company believes that the deal with Justice might not be harmful in its civil litigation. A wide variety of plaintiffs — including states, businesses and individuals — have brought suit against Halliburton, the drilling-rig owner TransOcean and the well operator BP.
The destruction of evidence took place after the accident and did not directly implicate problems with the cementing job that Halliburton performed on BP’s Macondo well, which blew out April 20, 2010, destroying the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.
But other analysts say that the destruction of evidence could signal trouble for the company.
“The problem that the plea agreement might produce for Halliburton in the civil cases is that obstructive acts tend to show consciousness of wrongdoing: Why would you cover up something if you believed you weren’t culpable?” said Strader, who has litigated a number of cases. “That could be very persuasive to a jury in a civil case.”
Halliburton has agreed to three years of probation. Lawyers involved with white-collar criminal cases say that means a later offense could have more severe consequences. And Halliburton’s record is not unblemished; the Securities and Exchange Commission charged in 2009 that the company had bribed Nigerian government officials in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
The computer simulations Halliburton destroyed would have defused one of the allegations against BP, which Halliburton publicly said had failed to use enough centralizers in the well. Centralizers are metal collars that help keep the steel drill pipe in the center of the well bore. The simulations might have turned more attention toward whether Halliburton’s cement job was flawed.
“The question of cement integrity has from the start been central to finding out what caused the blowout and what the industry might do differently to prevent a similar disaster going forward,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. “The deliberate and willful destruction of information that could help lead to answers is a deeply disturbing reminder of the need for effective public oversight of this industry.”